When you’re organizing with other folks towards some common goal, the initial group will often come together organically and the group may or may not ever evolve into some formal structure. If it does, you may find yourselves needing to recruit additional board members in order to officially start a nonprofit corporation. Here’s an excerpt from my book Starting & Building a Nonprofit on how to approach this task.
What Makes a Good Board?
Most great boards share some common traits and qualities that enable them to lead their groups creatively and effectively. The members of an ideal board of directors:
- share a passion for and commitment to the nonprofit’s mission
- are willing to roll up their sleeves when necessary to help with the practical work of the nonprofit
- have strong ties to their communities
- are diverse—in age, gender, race, religion, occupation, skills, and background, and
- are willing to support efforts to raise money.
The sections that follow look at these various qualities in a bit more detail.
Passion and Commitment
The very best prospects for your nonprofit’s board will be people who share a passion for, and commitment to, the nonprofit’s mission. No matter what name recognition or professional credentials particular people may have to offer, they will not be assets to your nonprofit’s board unless they care enough about what you do to involve themselves actively in helping you pursue your goals. If yours is a small nonprofit that doesn’t have the resources to hire staff or pay for outside services, it’s even more important that board members be committed to the cause and willing to contribute their time to get nonprofit tasks done.
Unfortunately, the best prospects in terms of professional achievement and influence in the community are often the very people who have the least amount of time to help. Finding people who are both professionally accomplished and willing to pull an oar isn’t easy. Here are some brief tips on the types of people who might make good recruits.
- Young professionals eager to make a difference and expand their skills. While established professionals at the top of their fields will often have zero time to spare, eager and talented up-and-comers may have more time to commit to your cause. Particularly for those in their 20s and 30s, being invited to participate on a board can be quite an honor and will often be viewed as an exciting opportunity for professional development and career advancement.
- Recently retired people. People who have recently retired often have fresh skills, good contacts, and time. And, just as important, they are often looking for ways to stay active in the world beyond playing golf or mah-jongg.
- Businesspeople in related fields. For instance, if your nonprofit aims to feed the homeless, you should consider not just community leaders and social activists, but also restaurant and grocery store owners. Similarly, a group wanting to provide sports opportunities for the disabled might contact owners of local sports equipment stores or architects who design recreational facilities for the physically impaired.
- Local media people. Reporters, editors, and others from local media—newspapers, television and radio stations, and others—are good candidates because they’re typically both well informed and well connected. Reporters often cover certain beats that may make them particularly well suited for your board—for example, a local reporter who covers energy markets might be a good addition to your energy conservation nonprofit. (However, keep in mind that in some cases the opposite might be true—reporters might not want to put their journalistic objectivity in question by becoming involved in issues they routinely cover, particularly in controversial fields.)
- Professors, scholars, and researchers. Anyone who studies issues in your nonprofit’s subject area is a natural candidate for your board. For a nonprofit dedicated to promoting urban green space, for example, an urban planning professor (or landscape architecture professor, among others) would be a natural. College professors also tend to have flexible schedules, so they may be more likely to have time to serve.
- New moms or dads. Working professionals who take a year or more off to raise a young child may be looking for ways to stay involved in the world. Sometimes, serving on a board for a cause they care about is an ideal way to stay active.
Willingness to Help Raise Money
The most successful nonprofits have boards that are willing and able to help with fundraising efforts. Of course, most board members are likely to be driven by an interest in the nonprofit’s main cause—not by an interest in raising money. But no matter what your nonprofit’s core mission and priorities are, it will have to generate some income in order to survive. As the leaders of the nonprofit, board members are in a particularly strong position to promote it to potential funders. It’s important to find people who understand the importance of their fundraising role and are willing to lend a hand.
There are lots of different ways for board members to be involved in fundraising. Board members who aren’t comfortable directly soliciting funds can be involved in organizing events or developing membership drives. Other board members might be natural networkers or salespeople who would excel at contacting potential donors and actively soliciting contributions. And all board members should expect to help generate ideas for raising money, identify good donor prospects, and otherwise develop fundraising strategies.
In addition to helping raise funds from others, board members should also be willing to support your nonprofit financially. Some board members might not be able to contribute more than $50 per year; others might comfortably give $5,000. More important than how much money board members give is their willingness to demonstrate some level of financial commitment to the organization. Outside funding sources will want to see this level of faith and commitment from the board; its absence will be taken as a sign that all is not well within the organization. In addition, contributions from board members are often a godsend in a nonprofit’s early start-up days, when you will need cash up front for incorporation fees, a phone line, or other expenses before your fundraising machine is up and running.
Some nonprofits require board members to donate a certain amount each year; others suggest a contribution amount and leave it up to the individual members to decide how much to give. Your nonprofit will have to decide for itself what, if any, contribution requirements you’ll impose on board members. Keep in mind that there may be excellent potential board members who don’t have a lot of cash but more than make up for it with valuable skills or connections in the community. No matter how your nonprofit chooses to handle this issue, you must let prospective board members know before they agree to serve on the board what, if any, financial commitment will be expected of them.
Connection to Many Communities
Many nonprofits are started by groups of people who think a lot alike—they might even look a lot alike in terms of skin color, age, class, or gender. This isn’t a problem in itself; it’s often just the natural way that people come together to promote an issue they care about. But when you choose your board, you should consider who isn’t at the table and whose voices aren’t included in your start-up group. There may be people of other races, ages, or communities who care deeply about your issue and whose perspectives could greatly strengthen your board—and, by extension, your organization.
Going out of your way to build diversity in your board is not just an exercise in political correctness. Rather, by incorporating a range of viewpoints on your board, your group will be more likely to truly serve the public interest—not just a small slice of it. The goal is not simply to have a diverse board, but to translate the perspectives of your diverse board into a nonprofit that offers services broadly. In addition, having a diverse board will help you forge ties to a wider range of the community and broaden your base of support. When you build your board inclusively, you increase the board’s natural networking power.
Besides diversity, it’s important that the people you choose have strong ties to the communities you’re trying to reach. Remember, it’s not enough to have a diverse board—you ultimately want to reach diverse communities through that board. To achieve this, you should choose people who are connected to— and influential in—their communities. Examples include prominent businesspeople and others who are successful in their fields, community activists, politicians, religious leaders, and noted academics.
In addition to having board members who are connected to diverse communities, you want at least some board members who represent different points of view. While you obviously don’t want a board member who is hostile to your overall mission, it can be extremely advantageous to include people who have independent or unusual perspectives. For instance, a nonprofit dedicated to improving opportunities for minorities in newspaper journalism should try to include representatives from different aspects of the newspaper industry on its board. A diverse board would include not just newspaper editors and reporters, but also photographers, copy editors, circulation managers, and publishers, all of whom will typically have different perspectives and concerns than editors and reporters. Again, your ultimate goal is always to serve the public, which is usually best achieved with an open-minded board that engages in healthy debate.