If It Were Simple Everyone Could Do It

September 22, 2010

Linda Crompton, President and CEO, BoardSource

Lately I have been thinking about the problem of “getting the right people on the bus” – or, rather, around the nonprofit board table. A number of articles on exactly this topic have crossed my desk lately, so I know this is on a lot of people’s minds.

One of these articles suggested that we currently make board recruitment more complicated than it needs to be – all that’s necessary is to sit current board members down, write out a job description for potential members, and then ask each other “who do we know?” And voilà, you have a high-performing board that is passionate about your organization’s mission and happy to raise all the money needed to achieve it.

But while this sounds seductively simple and therefore appealing, I fear the approach is more suited to the board of yesterday than the challenge of today’s environment.

The fact is, today’s nonprofit boardroom IS complicated. The work board members do there requires increasingly more sophisticated, not-simple skills. “Who you know” is not enough for successful board recruitment anymore, because if you’re like most people, the folks you know are, by and large, just like you! “Who you know” is likely to replicate the same set of views you already have around the table. Boards need the perspective that comes from a diversity of thought, experience, skill set, and profession.

I have expressed my view before that there is a kind of transformation going on in all of our institutions at the moment, including the nonprofit ones, and the group that is responsible with helping to chart an organization’s future is around the board table. Yes, you have to ensure your mission is still relevant; yes, you must ensure that board members, especially new ones, understand their responsibilities clearly; but the most critical factor is that you have different generations, life experiences, genders, professional training, and ethnicities around that table who are committed to bring their unique perspectives to bear on yes, very complicated and important issues. I wish it were simpler.


6 Responses to “If It Were Simple Everyone Could Do It”

  1. Eric Ombega Says:

    Thanks a lot for the good article and for me it’s how to get out of this mind set of ‘who do we know’ which seems to perpetuate accross most Boards. There seems to be a fear of stonger Boards that will challenge the status quo and this is what most people could be afraid of.

  2. Nisa Says:

    it is a great article but you see,i do believe that who you know matters as a significant criteria for recruiting board members.
    Personally,I am not like my friends,i believe in diversity. people i want to be around must be able to make me see different perspective to an issue.
    Further more i hardly keep friends who will not impact tremendously on me and i feel challenged.
    So who you know really matters in this context.

  3. While it is ever so important to get the right skills around the table, it does start with “who do you know?” The trick is combining the two. I’ve had some luck lately with holding a board recruiting session with organizations. I have them identify 12-15 people who will care about their cause, but not people who will necessarily be on the board. Get them to a session (food or alcohol or both involved) in which they are told all they need to do is to help identify potential board members. Then we talk about different professions that need to be represented on the board, as well as all of the other critical factors you list (genders, professional training, ethnicities, etc.). Once you have about 40-50 people listed, they have your list and it’s a matter of individual meetings to connect with the identified prospects. This has been good to quickly increase board membership on several boards I’ve worked with in this area.

  4. Melissa Ness Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. There is still far too much reliance on the “who you know” strategy. It prevents a board from developing a contemporary approach to their work. To break this cycle, I think we have to focus more energy on helping non-profit organization boards develop effective recruitment techniques. Although more effort up front, the pay offs in the end are worth it.

    Nice job Linda

  5. So true! Agreeing to serve on a board is a big commitment and if you want a vital board you need people who are willing to make that commitment. It’s not just anyone – and it’s not just someone with certain job skills (we always talk about needing an architect)it’s a person who cares enough to give you their time and enthusiasm while taking a level of responsibility that is higher than it ever was before.

  6. Sherrie Palm Says:

    The timing of this piece is perfect; as a newbie to the path of nonprof, I am still trying to figure out the individual fingers. I was making myself crazy trying to figure out who would be the right fit for the board and finally decided that we are OK with our initial 3 board members (each of which is amazing as women’s health advocates) until the right person becomes obvious to add in. I want quality rather than quantity. I’d rather hover, comfortable in the knowledge that the women that make up our board are insightful powerhouses of performance, rather than just “fill the seats”. Thanks for the article!

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