“Being unprepared to adequately welcome and value the contributions and perspectives of new board members is a disservice to the mission and to the members. Enhancing the practice of instituting pre- and post-recruitment processes will benefit the organization by fostering more engaged and satisfied board members.”
It was through Propel Nonprofits’ (MAP for Nonprofits at that time) Board Connector program that I joined my first nonprofit board in 2008. A mentor had encouraged me to join a board as one way to expand my skills in nonprofit management and leadership. While the executive director and I met and agreed that I would be a good fit for the board, I felt completely out of the place at the first board meeting. I had a hard time following the discussions on the agenda and didn’t even know what people were doing when they were voting on motions.
As the meetings went on over the course of several months, I eventually caught on and realized that much of my confusion was due to a lack of future direction and organizational structure. We were planning events and advocating for legislation based on reacting to external factors. For those who were more familiar with the issue and with legislative advocacy, it might have made sense. For me, being clear to the board that I did not have extensive experience with either, I struggled with seeing myself as part of the team and the organization. Just after one year, I resigned.
Recruiting Should be a Strategy, Not a Goal
Since then, I’ve served on other nonprofit boards and have had varied experiences. Generally, I’ve come to see that this is common among nonprofit boards: recruiting becomes the goal rather than a strategy. There is a target set of skills and/or representation to recruit for the board, but how to retain members and ensure their participation on the board is an afterthought, if at all. This isn’t a reflection of poor leadership as much as a reflection of poor practices and limited processes. These limitations have become more transparent as diversity rose as a higher priority for nonprofit organizations in recent years. This direction to engage younger board members, racially and economically diverse board members, and other new perspectives has had strong commitment, but the practices pre- and post-recruitment requires as much, if not more, commitment and intentionality.
Serving as a nonprofit board member is a major responsibility. As volunteers, board members seek to make lasting, positive impact through using their skills, talents, and treasure. Therefore, it is important that they are provided the structure and systems to be engaged and partake in the success of the organization.
Retaining Those You Recruit
As a more experienced board member and given my role as a board governance consultant, I’m applying what I’ve learned on that board I’m on now to be more effective in recruiting AND retaining new board members. Serving on a board development committee of one board, we focus on intentionality in engaging current board members. This involves understanding their motivations to serving, the skills and talents they’d like to contribute and providing opportunities to learn and grow. While we can’t accommodate every request, we can certainly be more responsive and relevant to board members while being transparent on capacity and ability.
As an effective onboarding process, it is important to understand what new board members would need to feel welcome and supported. As part of the orientation process to provide an overview and background to the organization, a critical component is to gather expectations and preferences of new board members. Be prepared to be responsive with the board’s capacity or incapacity to meet these as well as a way to save this information for genuine engagement. In the case that a new board member may not know yet, share opportunities that are available such as a buddy system to have existing board members check in with new board members in the first few months, or a mentoring system for those who are having their first board role.
Are You Prepared for New Board Members?
On boards where I’m involved with recruiting, we prepare responses to questions we would pose if we are approached to serve on a board. These questions help us identify areas of preparedness and areas that need to be developed before we begin recruiting. They include: What is our flexibility level with our meeting times and meeting methods? What can we provide to support the integration of new skills and ideas? How can we continually assess board members’ engagement and satisfaction and against what indicators?
The insights and activities these questions evoke can be overwhelming when there is also an urgency to add more people to the board to get work done. My preference has been to serve on the boards of small organizations, and so I’m familiar with the urge to simply add capacity. However, being unprepared to adequately welcome and value the contributions and perspectives of new board members is a disservice to the mission and to the members. Enhancing the practice of instituting pre- and post-recruitment processes will benefit the organization by fostering more engaged and satisfied board members.
If you’re thinking about recruiting new board members, check out this free guide on our website. It includes more questions to ask before you get started, as well as suggestions of where to recruit. View recruitment as an ongoing process and invest the time in making sure your process includes assessment and onboarding as much as recruitment itself.