Finding the Right Board Members for Your Nonprofit

Searching for people to serve on your nonprofit’s board can be an overwhelming task. Whether your nonprofit is recruiting its first board, or if you’re looking to strengthen your existing board, we’ve got some tips to help you find the right people. Before you start recruiting, it’s important to know the basics about boards and the role your board plays at each stage in your organization’s growth.

Recruiting your First Board of Directors

When you’re searching for your nonprofit’s first board, there are a few things to keep in mind before you get started. For example, your board cannot be entirely made up of your family or people you own a business with. You can learn more about the rules on that topic here.

After that, think about what types of talent your organization might need. You’re passionate about your cause, but it takes people of all different skill sets to create and operate a successful organization. For your first board, you’ll also need to elect positions within the board: President (often called “Board Chair”), Treasurer and Secretary are the positions that must be filled according to the IRS’s regulations.

As a general best practice, the initial board of directors should include:

  • Someone who understands your target population. For example, if you’re starting an animal shelter, having a veterinarian or a dog trainer on your board would be great. Or if you’re starting an educational organization, having a teacher or school administrator would be beneficial. You need at least one person on your board who has experience in that field and can help speak for your targeted population.
  • Someone with experience raising money, whether that person is in sales, event planning, grant writing, or has helped fundraise for other nonprofit organizations. Every board needs at least one (preferably more!) person who isn’t afraid to seek funding for the organization. No matter how wonderful your cause is, if you don’t receive funding, you won’t be able to achieve your mission.
  • Someone who is not afraid to disagree with you. Although it can be tempting to recruit board members who will all agree on everything, this can actually be a problem. If you don’t have disagreements, you might miss out on alternative solutions to problems that will arise. Having a variety of viewpoints can help you be a more effective team with plenty of ideas when problems need to be solved. In a similar way, ensuring your board is diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, and background can also help provide a variety of perspectives, strengthening your nonprofit in the process. 
  • Someone who understands basic finance. Once you have funding coming in, the person you select as your board’s Treasurer will need to have some knowledge in the area of finance or bookkeeping. Typically, this role is filled by an accountant, bookkeeper, or other financial professional, but if your organization will be hiring an accountant instead, it would suffice to have someone with more basic knowledge on the topic. Keeping your nonprofit’s finances in order ensures you have the resources to do the great work you want to do. It’s also great to have your finances in order when your reporting is due to the IRS and to the state you’re incorporated in.

Depending on the type of organization you have, it can also be useful to have a few other key players on your board. An understanding of real estate can help if your organization is looking to buy, rent, or sell your first building. Someone with an intimate knowledge of technology might be able to help your organization leverage tech to better serve your mission. And many organizations recruit an attorney to their board for basic legal knowledge, though we would caution against taking too much advice from a free board attorney unless they specialize in nonprofit law. Nonprofit law is a niche area that differs from other areas of law, so a well-meaning divorce attorney might give your nonprofit incorrect guidance on accident.

For all the people on your first board, choose people with time to dedicate to your organization. At the start of a nonprofit, being on the board can be time-consuming, so make sure members understand the time commitment you’ll expect from them. And of course, your board should ultimately be made up of people who are committed to your mission. So how do you find those people?

First, think of the people you know who care about your cause. Whether it’s friends, coworkers, people you know from a social club, or people you know from church, odds are, you know other people who care about your mission. When you have initial people in mind, be sure to ask them if they know people who also may be interested in getting involved. 

Don’t discount the power of networking. Most cities have networking groups you can attend to meet other people, so that can also be a great way to expand your options. Remember that you can have someone related to you on your board, but it cannot be the majority of people on your board.

Your first board likely won’t be flawless, but recruiting dependable, honest people who care about your nonprofit’s mission is the most important piece. Once you have your first board selected, reach out to us to get your nonprofit started legally.

Recruiting Board Members for Existing Nonprofit Organizations

Depending on what stage your nonprofit is in, your board might play a different role in your nonprofit. For organizations that are beyond the startup phase, it can be more beneficial to bring in people with experience dealing with high level problems. For example, if your nonprofit has grown to employ 50 staff members, it may be useful for you to have board members who have experience managing groups of people and building company culture. 

For existing organizations, take a look at your major donors and corporate sponsors. Odds are, if someone is willing to invest money into your cause, they might be interested in having a say in the overall direction of the organization. Having a representative from a few of your corporate sponsors on your board can also deepen the relationship, leading to more donations and involvement from the company they work for. Keep in mind that with major donors and corporate sponsors, it’s crucial to maintain those relationships, so ensure you’re not leaving them on the backburner once recruited onto your board.

Your volunteers can also serve as board members. With volunteers, it’s important to take into account if the person has the capacity to give at the level your board is expected to donate. You wouldn’t want to recruit someone on your board who doesn’t have the ability to donate to your organization, as many grant providers expect you to have 100% of your board donating to your organization in order to receive funding. 

Some nonprofits even post openings on their board on job boards or on social media. This can help get the word out about what type of role(s) you’re looking to fill on your board, though the results with this approach vary wildly. Instead, try asking your existing board members to think of people who may be a good fit. Having the networks of all of your board is a powerful tool to find new board members to add to the mix. It’s not uncommon for board members who are leaving a board to help recruit their replacement.

When recruiting additional board members, be wary of the top mistakes we see boards make. For example, recruiting people who agree with you on every topic may be tempting, but this can actually stifle the decision making process and create a narrow frame of view. Differing perspectives on a board are healthy and encourage robust conversation when making tough decisions. To ensure you have a variety of perspectives represented, selecting people of different backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and races can be helpful. 

Conclusion

Whether you’re replacing a board member who is rolling off the board or recruiting your first board members, who you select is crucial. Ideally, it would be great to have a wealth of expertise on your board, from fundraising to marketing. But above all, you want to recruit a board of people who are unified in their dedication to your nonprofit’s mission.

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