Planning for board transitions

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Executive transitions are an increasingly important topic of conversation at nonprofits across the country – and we’ve written a few articles about it over the last several years. But, is your nonprofit also planning for board member transitions? Although unplanned vacancies can occur, having set terms and term limits for members of the board allows for more systematic planning to find the right board members to advance your nonprofit’s mission. Resources for many of the issues raised below can be found on the excellent website maintained by our colleagues at BoardSource.

Identifying potential board members to serve

Some organizations create a matrix to help identify the skills necessary to advance the mission. These tools can be very useful in identifying gaps that need to be filled and specific individuals to cultivate as potential future board members. If your nonprofit chooses to use a matrix, be aware of the potential downsides to avoid falling into common traps. For example, using  a matrix can tempt you to search for people who “check a box” to fill a  designated role (e.g., legal), yet may not have the desired experience (e.g., a criminal prosecutor when you might want the skills of a tax lawyer or zoning lawyer). Does your board recognize the importance of focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion? And will the identified board members Stand for Your Mission by helping to advocate on behalf of your organization?

Recruiting the best potential board members

Once you’ve identified the people who can help advance the mission, the next step is to recruit them to serve. This process can take some time to ensure there is a good fit. Some organizations cultivate potential board members months or years before inviting them to serve on the board. One way to cultivate (and screen) potential board members is to invite them to serve in other volunteer roles first, perhaps as part a special event or on a committee that allows non-board members to serve. These roles allow them to see your mission in action, and you to see their commitment.

Be transparent with prospects about the expectations for board members. BoardSource offers a good template board member job description that can be adapted. Potential candidates should know how much time they should expect to devote to their work on the board before making the commitment to join.

Orienting your new board members

Okay, new board members have been identified, recruited, and voted on. Now what? Just like new staff members, board members are best able to help your organization if they have a solid orientation to the organization’s policies, procedures, and programs. That background will prepare a new board member to speak up confidently starting with their first board meeting.

Focusing on board chairs

As you recruit, are you also thinking about who will lead the board in the future? Having a plan for who will succeed the nonprofit’s current board chair is critically important. In the “mission minute” video at right, Sheila Bravo, President and CEO of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, talks about the importance of thinking about who the next board leader will be. As she says, we need to think about what “a great board chair makes possible for the organization, it’s more than just calling the [board] meeting to order.” Board chairs need to engage and draw out the best talents of other board members. Even as a new chair takes over, be thinking about who the next chair might be. Some nonprofits rely on a predetermined leadership path that designates the vice chair as the “heir apparent” to serve as the next board chair. This approach gives the vice chair time to prepare and saves the nonprofit from a mad scramble to recruit a new chair at the last minute of the current board chair’s term.

As you think about who may serve in this role, consider the attributes noted in our article on “How to Be a Rockstar Board Chair.” Even if someone is well-qualified, it’s also critical to ensure they have the time to devote to the role. While many nonprofits rely on people with full-time jobs to serve as our board members, serving as chair will require a larger time investment than for other board members.


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