Entire books have been written about the art of cultivating, identifying, asking, and nurturing a strong nonprofit board. While we can’t get into all the details here, we have the following suggestions for the process of shaping your nonprofit’s board into an effective force for good governance:
Start with what your nonprofit needs: A board member with financial expertise? Connections in the community? Someone familiar with the individuals served by the nonprofit? Once you have identified what skills and experience your nonprofit needs, you're ready to identify and recruit new board members. The recruitment process requires both "vetting" a candidate and “cultivating” the interest of a potential future board member until he or she is ready to accept an invitation to become an ambasador for the nonprofit. Some nonprofits “test drive” potential board members by asking them first to serve on a task force or to volunteer for the nonprofit in another way. Need help finding the right board member? Contact your State Association of nonprofits, local United Ways, or local community foundation, any of which may have suggestions for board-match programs in your area. You may also want to explore Board Connect, an online matching service that is a collaboration between LinkedIn and BoardSource.
While it could be everyone's job to be on the look-out for potential new board members, it's best if the actual invitation to join a board is extended only by those current board members who have been specifically authorized to extend an invitation, sometimes after the full board has already approved the candidate. This usually happens after the “Board Governance Committee” (sometimes called the “Board Development Committee” or the "Governance Committee") has vetted a list of potential prospects and decided not only who should be asked, but also determined who the best person to make the ask will be. Often who asks, makes a difference in whether the candidate says 'yes.'
Calling the committee that identifies new board members the “Nominating Committee” implies that its only function is to nominate board members for election to the board. But serving on a charitable nonprofit's board is about more than just being elected – it’s about constantly learning about the organization, providing stewardship, and becoming the most effective problem solvers and policy-makers possible for the nonprofit. We suggest naming this committee the “Board Development Committee” or the “Board Governance Committee” because its focus should go well beyond nominating to ensuring that the nonprofit has effective governance practices, that the board is fulfilling its role effectively, and evaluating itself regularly to ensure that it is fulfilling its obligations as a caretaker and steward of the nonprofit's assets, reputation, financial and human resources, and mission.
4. Onboard with vigor.
Bringing on a terrific board member is only the first step. Make sure the board member becomes engaged in the work of the board and feels that his or her time is well spent. Finding the right committee for the new board member can be helpful to ensure early engagement. Some people join boards to share their professional expertise with the nonprofit. Others want to do something completely different as a volunteer from what they do in their everyday job, so make sure your new board member has an assignment that suits him or her well. Assign new board members a mentor and use name tags at meetings so that new board members can get to know their colleagues easily.
Society expects so much from our volunteer board members – in turn we need to thoughtfully prepare and support them. Rarely do new members arrive on the board with years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Most often they will have only a passing familiarity with what a nonprofit is all about, but lots of passion for the mission of your organization. Consequently, regularly educating your board members about their important role and about the nonprofit itself should be a high priority.
Also visit the section on Boards and Governance in the Council of Nonprofits' online bookstore.
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