How to Find the Right People for Your Nonprofit Board

You don't want just anybody to serve on your nonprofit organization's board. You want to choose the most generous members of your community who believe in what you're doing, will come to all your meetings, will be advocates for your programs, will provide honest and ethical oversight to the organization, and will sweep the floor on weekends.

Perhaps not surprisingly, you won't find many board members who fit this description. Even so, the following three traits are critical to the success of the organization:

  • Believing in your mission

  • Being a strong advocate on behalf of your programs

  • Serving the organization as a careful and honest board member

Most importantly, you must find board members who understand and believe deeply in what you're doing. Showing up for board meetings is a nice habit, too.

You also need to think seriously about the skills that board members bring to your organization. Do you need an accountant to set up financial systems? A public relations specialist to help with media campaigns? An attorney to help with legal matters? You probably do. Don't expect the accountant to do your audit or the attorney to represent you in court. You need a disinterested professional to do that work.

Your board should reflect your organization's character and mission. A community-organizing group dedicated to collective decision making may want board members who work well together. A neighborhood development organization clearly wants board members from its neighborhood.

Although having a friend or two on the board is fine, be careful about overloading the board with golfing buddies and carpool partners. Boards need diverse opinions and honest feedback from members.

Keep the board fresh

Building a board should be a continuing process. Therefore, your organizational bylaws need to specify terms of service. Two three-year terms or three two-year terms are the most common terms for board service. In most cases, bylaws allow reelection to the board after one year's absence. Limiting terms of service helps you maintain a fresh supply of new ideas.

Plus, terms of service can help you recruit new board members because your potential recruits know their time commitment is of limited duration.

To avoid having all your board members leave in the same year, stagger the years when terms expire. You can allow someone to serve an extra year or ask others to serve shorter terms.

So where do you find new board members? Start with your organization's address book. Whom do you know who may make a good member? Who benefits from your agency's work? Who are your agency's neighbors? Who is actively involved as a volunteer for your agency? Also consider asking your funders for suggestions and look at former board members of other high-functioning nonprofit organizations with similar missions.

Big boards versus little boards

Opinions differ about the ideal number of board members. Following are some points to consider when setting your board's size:

  • Start-up nonprofits tend to have smaller boards than more mature organizations. Start-up budgets tend to be smaller, and building a board of directors takes time.

  • Boards that are actively engaged in fundraising for major gifts and special events tend to be larger because both fundraising techniques are fueled by personal contacts and friendships. The more board members you have, the more personalized invitations you can send to your next event. Some large cultural and arts institutions have 50 board members or more.

  • Boards that govern nonprofits funded mostly by grants and contracts tend to have fewer members, perhaps an average of 10 to 12 members. Board members in these nonprofits usually have fewer fundraising responsibilities for the organization and frequently are representatives of the communities or clients served. They also may have professional experience in the types of service provided by the nonprofit.

How to select board officers and committees

Typical officer positions of most nonprofit boards include president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. Sometimes the positions of secretary and treasurer are combined into one office. Your state laws may specify which officers are required. Seniority on the board, professional expertise, and skills at negotiating with and listening to others are common traits sought in a board's leaders. Ultimately, however, the board of directors chooses the officers.

The following list outlines the responsibilities of board officers.

  • President (or chairperson): Presides at board meetings, appoints committee chairpersons, works closely with the executive director to guide the organization, and acts as public spokesperson for the organization (but also may assign this responsibility to the executive director)

  • Vice-president (or vice-chairperson): Presides at board meetings in the president's absence and serves as a committee chairperson as appointed by the president

  • Secretary: Maintains the organization's records, takes minutes at board meetings, and distributes minutes and announcements of upcoming meetings to board members

  • Treasurer: Oversees the organization's financial aspects, makes regular financial reports to the board, and serves as chairperson of the board finance committee

If the board has standing, or permanent, committees, the board president appoints committee chairpersons. Typical standing committees include finance, development or fundraising, program, and nominating committees. Other possible committees that may be either standing or ad hoc — a temporary committee organized to deal with time-limited projects — include planning, executive search, investment, special events, and facilities. The following list outlines the responsibilities of common standing committees.

  • Development: Sets fundraising goals and plans fundraising activities for the organization

  • Finance: Assists the treasurer in overseeing financial reports and official tax filings, making budgets, and maintains relationship with professional accounting firm, if applicable

  • Nominating: Recruits new board members and nominates board officers for election to their positions

  • Program: Oversees the program activities of the organization

Board committees make regular reports to the full board about the organization's activities in their particular areas. Board officer terms and the number and type of standing committees are written into the organization's bylaws.

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