Finders, keepers: The importance of a strategic board recruitment process


For nonprofits, foundations and corporations, finding your next board member can be like finding a needle in a hay stack. While persuading a prospect to say “yes” is an organizational challenge, it is only the beginning of a much larger process. Recruiting, training and mentoring new members are essential to the health of your board and this is a strategic process requiring an ongoing investment of time and attention.

This task resides in the nominating or governance committee, or in the case of small or new boards, the board chair. It starts with establishing criteria and policies for selecting, recruiting, training and mentoring new members. The committee never acts alone, nor solely at year-end. The ongoing process requires input and assistance of the entire board, as well as the executive staff.

Determine your needs

Before beginning the search, the board must clearly articulate what it is searching for, by first assessing board composition and the current and anticipated board needs. The assessment can be performed using a self-assessment survey to reveal board effectiveness and areas for improvement (see sample assessment at Another tool is a board profile grid that defines selected factors such as skills, expertise, age, longevity on board, funding resources or personal style (see sample grid at

Next, the committee determines the skills, relationships, perspectives and financial resources needed to support the current and future work of the organization. For example, if marketing and communication is a weakness, then finding a board member with those skills might be a search priority.

Similarly, if a capital campaign is in the future, architectural or construction expertise may be helpful. More intangible selection criteria include a passion for the mission, cultural fit and willingness to actively engage in the work of the board.

For small or new boards, common skills and expertise needed for the effective functioning of a board include legal, financial, marketing and public relations, technology, human resources, real estate and individuals with relationships with community leaders, potential donors, funders and volunteers.

Diversity is an often sited selection criterion and can encompass many variables from ethnic, racial and socio-economic diversity to age, expertise, funding potential or representation of key stakeholders, client populations or geographic service areas.

When setting a diversity goal, an organization should clearly articulate the reasons for the goal, how the skills and talents of individual prospects will be utilized and engaged to meet those goals, and ultimately create space and a welcoming culture for the diversity you seek.

Once you know “what” you are looking for, following are steps on “how” to conduct the search and orient your new recruit:

Recruiting protocol

Protocol is essential for identifying, screening and making an offer to a candidate. It should include who is responsible for initiating discussions and conducting the formal interviewing process, the essential parties to the process, as well as the kinds of information to be given to the candidate. (See Governance Matters: Board Leadership Tool on Recruitment (

All protocols should be communicated to the board to avoid confusion over whether a conversation with a candidate is an actual offer or just a preliminary conversation.

A member of the nominating committee can perform the preliminary discussion to assess interest and suitability. The formal interview can be conducted by a nominating committee member and the board chair or senior management. Regardless, the person will need to meet a candidate before any final decision is made.

Provide the candidate with an application for board membership to obtain personal and employment information, skills and expertise, knowledge of your organization and other board or community service experience.  Candidate materials can also include the latest annual report, program brochures, any existing marketing materials and an outline of board expectations.

The interview

Before the interview, the person referring the candidate should provide the nominating committee with background information on the candidate. The application will provide this as well.

During the interview, the interviewer can explore the candidate’s motivation for joining the board, knowledge of the organization and interest and connection to the mission.

At the same time, more general questions that focus on the candidate’s work, hobbies, other volunteer activities and the roles they play in group projects will reveal whether their personality style is a cultural fit, the amount of time they can realistically give, comfort level in speaking up/listening to others, conflict resolution skills, ability to support majority decisions and their leadership potential.

Benefits and expectations

The screening process is a time to promote organizational strengths, the connection between your mission and a candidate’s motivation for joining and how board membership will meet personal and professional goals. Other benefits to highlight include the ability to make a difference in the community and the chance to meet and connect with other board members.  Avoid having a dissatisfied board member or a wrong fit by clearly communicating expectations, roles and responsibilities through personal conversations and as part of a written handout included in the candidate’s package. Factors to include are committee membership obligations, fundraising duties, the approximate annual time commitment and how board members will be evaluated.

A decision about financial expectations should be determined up front and can include requiring a minimum financial donation (either personal or through contacts) or an expectation that your organization become one of their top charitable priorities.

If a candidate is unwilling or unprepared to meet expectations, don’t miss the opportunity to offer alternative ways to engage the candidate as either a committee member, working on a discrete project or a program volunteer. 

Orientation, mentoring and engagement

Don’t let your new member lose his initial excitement, commitment to the mission and willingness to begin meaningful work.

Like recruitment, a formal orientation and mentoring process is essential to educating the new member about the organizational history, board and committee structures, meeting protocols, financial health and culture. Orientation shortens the learning curve and speeds up how quickly the new member can have an impact on the organization.

A board tool kit can be created that contains much of this information. The kit can also include a contract regarding responsibilities as a reminder of expectations. However, it is not a substitute for relationship building including assigning a seasoned board member as a mentor, escorting the new member to his first meetings, planning a welcome reception and site visit to meet current members and staff, recommending relevant educational programs and a personal meeting to match skill sets with committee needs.  The sooner a member begins his work, the more engaged he will feel.   

Reach out

Even with procedures in place, it can be difficult to identify candidates that fit your search criteria. Start with your own constituents for prospects or suggestions since they already are sold on your organization.

Look to current members, staff, volunteers, advisory board members or organizational founders. Don’t forget loyal donors – they are already committed to you.

Use your newsletters to send the word out. Similarly, your special events are ways to further engage individuals only tangentially involved. Next, branch out to your broader community including your professionals and vendors or industry networking associations. Other sources include business leaders with expertise your board needs, civic groups, corporations (especially community affairs or human resource personnel) and other community leaders.

A number of organizations help match individuals seeking board membership with nonprofit organizations and include The Volunteer Center of the United Way ( or Board Net USA (