New Board Member Recruitment (for a non-profit organization)

Who should the nominating committee seek for new board members? Are you the right person to sit on this board? What are the reasonable expectations of board recruiters and recruits?

The following discussion may not apply to all boards, but it does for boards using Policy Governance. Also, this may not apply to a startup organization where the number of people who care about the cause are still few and the organization may not be incorporated. This is simply because, with so few people to volunteer, a separation between the responsibilities of the board and the staff may not be practical (if that is the case, plan for a transition to that separation as soon as possible or risk creating a culture of board-meddling that will be hard to reverse).

If you have been part of nominating committees of associations that do not use Policy Governance, you know there is often a wish-list of skills that someone once thought would be valuable to have on the board. So, you will find that the board is deliberately seeking to recruit people with, for instance: marketing skills; media skills; training in accounting, legal processes, business leadership; access to the donor community, etc. What is wrong with this? Essentially this form of recruitment is to help flesh out the staff with expensive talent who may, as board members, share their expertise for free. Since these people know that they are sought for their special skills, they will likely show up expecting that their main contribution to this worthy organization will be in the application of their special knowledge. While this could be very helpful to the organization, it has little or nothing to do with governance. Worse, the staff is accountable to the board, and therefore in part to these new board members. So, recruits’ voluntary advice may be taken by the staff to be a board-authorized command. This subverts the accountability of the staff. Understandably, during board meetings these new board members will want to know about the staff strategies that apply to their special area of expertise — allowing that to happen will quickly focus the board’s attention on the internal work of the staff, and away from the real business of governance. Before this line of discussion takes over this article, let me conclude by saying that if the staff truly needs these people as volunteers, they should be accountable to the staff (perhaps on staff advisory committees), and not on the board.

On a for-profit board, the board members are clear that they have a fiduciary responsibly, and that they are holding the organization in trust for the shareholders. Non-profit board member are sometimes elected by a membership, but in many cases the nominating committee’s recommendation is simply accepted. Who, then, does the board represent?

If the board member is truly a politician — e.g. someone who was elected by the membership, or serves on a municipal council or school board — there are certain political realities about how the elected board member responds to the needs and appeals of the voters. That is an interesting topic, however, except to say that Policy Governance can work for those assemblies, politics is not the focus of this article.

With Policy Governance, the board understands that its primary job is to hold the organization in trust for those members of the community who would have the organization exist (called the ownership). The board actually describes this cohort in the overarching Governance Process policy.

This is a central concept of Policy Governance, and for those who are accustomed to traditional governance it is sometimes difficult to grasp. So, at the risk of repeating what is already described in the literature (and in other articles in this series) let me list some of the roles that should not be assumed by the board. The board is not there to help staff, or provide strategic advice and wisdom. (There are ways that individuals may do this… but not as part of the work of the board.) If people who are on the board are ever trying to promote a personal vision for the association they will be subverting true governance — one cannot be a fiduciary and still promote a personal agenda. The board is not there to oversee and approve/reject staff plans; or even be a cheerleader for the work of staff (being appreciative of the staff’s good performance is often a good idea, it is simply not a required part of the role of governance).

If governance is about being a fiduciary for a segment of the community, how might we describe those who would make the best board members?

Look for those who are prepared to be fiduciaries

Your association was created to respond to a need in the community. Look for board members who will truly understand this need and will passionately represent those members of the community who share a desire to have the organization address that need (specifically, the ownership). Probably those potential board members will be recruited from among the members of that community. It may be helpful if these people are articulate about the makeup and needs of the ownership. The board must link with the cohort it represents, and it is useful if members of the board arrive with strong personal connections with that community.

Look for those who would be good servant-leaders

Many of the articles in this series describe the work of a Policy Governance board as leadership. This is true, but it is not the kind of leadership that is typical today in our community — which rewards individualism and personal merit with lonely leadership. It is the whole board that is to show joint-leadership — not the individual members. This job is about service, not power. So, you are probably looking for someone who has demonstrated that s/he is a strong team player. These people probably have already distinguished themselves in community service and on committees. For committees the task is is usually short-lived and clear, however a board has to make its own priorities and hold itself accountable. This is a never-ending task and therefore requires a long-term focus. Since, for the board, there is no short term task it often becomes easy for boards to be distracted by whatever fire is currently burning, or to be led in its agenda by what the staff has requested. Look for independent thinkers who will not tolerate having their time wasted or spending much time on entertaining but not appropriate issues. These are self-motivated people who will bother learn the skills of governance and will personally keep focused on the real work of the job.

Look for those who want to be leaders in community transformation

Look for people who are comfortable and even enthusiastic about community transformation. This is because your association is there to address a need, and therefore that must result in some sort of change in the community. It is not enough for your association to merely be there helping, or to be present, or even to be right. Your board must be able to articulate the required transformation, and hold the staff accountable for achieving that. There is always a cost to implementing changes, and many people are content to keep costs so negligible that the results are not possible. Governance sometimes requires making difficult choices. The job requires people who can be both visionary and practical.

Look for people who will accept that positive results is reward enough

Many people come to the attention of nominating committees because they have distinguished themselves in serving on community committees or because they have enjoyed success in their professional life. In both spheres there are systems of rewards and recognition for good work. Since the board must be in a leadership position, and since the work is voluntary, where does the board receive its recognition for doing a good job? To the disappointment of many new board members there is no built-in reward system or even recognition. On the contrary. So when times are tough, and the board must make hard decisions, the work in the boardroom can be very lonely. Why do it? The answer must be compelling to the new recruit: this association is here to address a real need, and because of the work of the board, someday, that need will be met. The task may sometimes be thankless, but the results will be real. And that should be enough.

Look for people who may someday serve as the chair

The nominating committee may be able to select recruits from the whole community, but the officers of the association should probably have lots of experience with the culture of the board and with being able to lead using Policy Governance. Likely these people should have experience on this board. The choice for officers, then, is among a very small number of people. It makes it even more difficult if experienced board members are not willing to serve in the higher offices. Nominating committees should recruit new members who have the potential to someday be officers of the board.

© 2009 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

%d bloggers like this: