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 to advance its mission right now and in the near future: 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 offer board prospects the opportunity first to serve on a committee or task force, or 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, many of which will know about 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.
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.
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, being an advocate for the mission, making decisions that are in the best interest of the organization, ensuring prudent use of the nonprofit's assets, and looking ahead to help the nonprofit plan for the future. All this requires ongoing exposure/education to issues that affect the nonprofit's operations - whether the environment in which the nonprofit operates or its internal functions. As the name "Governance Committee" suggests, the focus of what used to be called the "nominating committee" is now on effective board governance, and its role goes well beyond nominating. The committee tasked with keeping the board on track is usually responsible for ensuring that the nonprofit has effective governance practices, that individual board members are engaged, and that the board as a whole is effectively fulfilling its obligations as a steward of the nonprofit's assets, reputation, financial and human resources, and mission.
While it should be every board member'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 tasked with extending an invitation. 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. Who asks often makes a difference in whether the candidate says 'yes.' Thoughtful comments on the process of recruiting new board members, and the downsides of making an “ask” prematurely, are shared in this article, Speed Up The Board Recruitment Process (Blue Avocado).
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.
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