Better Board Engagement Starts With Better Board Recruitment

The following article was part of the May/June edition of the Nonprofit Hub Magazine, which focused on Board of Director member engagement. To receive our next edition, sign up here.


In the relationship world, an engagement is signified by a shiny ring.

For a board of directors, engagement is signified by members who are advocates, involved and contributing financially.

Just because the two paths to engagement end in different results doesn’t mean the methods used to get there are different. Both require time, energy and patience.

“Good board member recruitment is kind of like dating,” said Jeff Yost, the President and CEO  at the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF).

“The first thing you have to commit to is the time required to have those deep relationships with each and every one of those (potential board members), and then figure out how do we mix that together to get the most out of the opportunities.”

Looking Down the Road

The key to board of director member engagement begins long before people are part of your board. It involves recruiting and cultivating people who believe in your nonprofit’s mission and developing them into effective board members.

John Fulwider, an author, teacher and coach for nonprofit executives, said the most successful nonprofits invest a lot of time and energy in board recruitment.

“It’s a long process over time to put in place good, strong board recruitment measures that then lead to engaged board members,” said Fulwider, who recently published the ebook Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love, and Change Their World. “It’s absolutely worth it. Small steps taken right now will yield results over time.”

Fulwider said it might seem like a “Herculean task” to build a pool of candidates, but it will take some time to get to the point where you are interviewing candidates and turning quality people away. In addition, he said, your board member recruitment should be looking five to 10 years down the road.

“As a success-minded nonprofit chief you should be looking many years out,” Fulwider said. “You don’t wait until your board is terming out and you have to recruit eight more board members.”

He suggested starting with your existing volunteer pool. These people have already proven their dedication to the organization, and they are in it for the long-haul. You can also give them more direct involvement in the organization and provide them with the chance to show their engagement rather than just talking about it.

“We’ve all been in positions where we have interviewed for a job and we’ve talked a good game,” Fulwider said. “I say demonstrate engagement by offering board members an opportunity to sit on a committee of some sort that is not a voting member of the board.”

One Recipe for Success

Fulwider said he is impressed with the work done by Yost and NCF to build a great, engaged board of directors.

NCF’s board currently includes 18 members from across the state who provide governance for the community and economic development efforts of NCF’s local affiliated funds. Yost said the engagement comes down to relationship building with each member of the board and is one of the highest priorities of the organization.

Yost said he has modified his board management practice during his 12 years as president and CEO, but he starts the recruitment process with a pair of lists. One includes upwards of 100 names of people who are on his radar, while the other has 40 names that are more intentionally considered.

Yost gets to know people long before they get asked to be on the board to make sure they are asking the right people and those people are in the right position in their life to say yes. In addition, Yost is clear about what potential members are signing up for when they agree to serve on the board. He provides them with a detailed job description, expectations and a statement of commitment.

“We try to be incredibly honest with people with the time commitment involved with the board so none of that comes as a surprise,” Yost said. “I want to do whatever we can to maximize the use of their time and skills. Part of that is being really honest with them as in ‘This is how we do it’ and ‘This is the culture we have.’”

Great Board Members Are Made, Not Born

When looking for potential members, you don’t need people with the correct skill set, because those can be taught, but rather the right commitment and passion.

“So many times people assume that people you are asking to be a board member know all this stuff,” Yost said. “Why would they know it?”

Fulwider said part of the cultivation process is to teach skills people will need to be engaged board members. By setting up a strong training program to work with the potential members, the board engagement, and thus the organization, will greatly improve.

“Professional development is not just for the paid staff of a nonprofit, it’s also for the board members,” Fulwider said. “Sometimes there are people who are not visibly rock stars now, who could become rock stars through a really high quality recruitment, onboarding and board development process.”


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

May 1, 2015

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