How to Grow an Award Winning Board

Mission Statement | Bylaws | Board Responsibility | Board Member Commitment | Recruitment | Nominations | Board Presidents | Board Meetings | Chairing Board Meetings | Committees | Budgets | Monthly Financial Reports | Fundraising | Executive Director | Liability | Potpourri

THEY DON’T MAKE BOARD MEMBERS LIKE THEY USED TO! A commonly voiced complaint that you always hear wherever you go. It translates to “its awfully hard to find good Board members”. No doubt about it, it is hard to find them, not in the least because there is great competition for them in any community. But they are out there if you want to make the effort to find them. Two years ago the National Center for Citizen Involvement released a national study which, among other things, demonstrated that there are, today, more people volunteering than ever before in our history. So, how to find them?

It is the lack of never-ending year-round consistency which defeats most leadership development efforts. Too often, the search for new Board members is a rather last minute affair. Sometimes the nominating committee is formed several months in advance, but this too is inadequate. What is needed is the involvement of the full Board, Staff members and (if there is one) the Advisory Council in the identification of good candidates for Board membership.

This is easily done. Develop a Board Candidate card (which can also be used for regular volunteers as well) and give each Board member, each Staff member and each Advisory Council member a supply. Each month, the Chair must – as regular as clockwork – remind the Board of the need to use this card to turn in the names and background of potential new Board members. This system is based upon the fact that each Board/Staff/Council member knows a lot of people when they think about it and some – not many, but some – of these people will be possible candidates for membership on your Board. And when Board/Staff/Council members come across possible candidates, they should fill out the card and turn it in to the agency office where two file systems are kept. The first is alphabetical and the second by skills. In this latter connection, the card should inquire about what skills the candidate has that would be of use to your Board.

As the cards accumulate (and don’t be impatient, it does take time to assemble a respectable collection of names) you will be developing an inventory of names from which to draw upon in the future. If you make use of the device of “members of the corporation” this growing collection of names could be invited to become supporters. Some of these people might be asked to serve on committees or in other volunteer activities. If you can make substantive use of them before the time comes to invite their service on the Board itself, so much the better. You will know them and their abilities better and they will be better Board members because of the experience.

But, the most important part of this system is never-ending consistency. This process does not take any appreciable amount of time, but it is imperative that the monthly reminder from the chair be made to raise the consciousness of your Board/Staff/Council members to this need to be constantly on the lookout for qualified people.

It is always easier and more effective to obtain the services of a person on your board who has been involved with your organization as a volunteer or as a committee member beforehand. Such individuals know the work of the organization better and, conversely, such persons and their abilities and motivations are known quantities to you. And so one of the uses of the inventory of names of potential board members developed by the use of the board candidate recommendation card is to function as a reservoir of volunteers or committee members as well. But in involving potential future board members in volunteer or committee assignments, you must make sure that the involvement is substantive. One of the fastest ways to turn off the interest of a potential board member is to involve him/her in relatively unimportant “busy work”.

Whenever the nominating committee decides that one of these people whose name has been turned in on a board candidate recommendation card should be invited to stand for election to the board, the problem of persuading the chosen one to serve arises. A casual telephone invitation to serve which infers that “It’s only a few meetings a year and there is really not too much to do!” is not the way to go.

When inviting a person to serve on your board, it is always best to explain face-to-face why you are inviting him or her specifically. A statement to the effect that, “We want YOU, because you have a skill (or other characteristic) that we need to help us get an important job done in our community ….” rarely fails to make an excellent impression. Such an approach says to the invitee that this board takes its responsibilities seriously and that this is not an invitation to be accepted – or to be turned down – lightly. Such an invitation is usually flattering to the invitee as well.

Together with the reasons why you are extending this invitation to serve must also go an honest statement of what is expected of board members in your organization and an explanation of why it is important to the mission of your organization for your board members to make such a commitment.

WHY WOULD I WANT TO SERVE ON YOUR BOARD? Were you to invite me to serve and were I both interested and able to do so, I would immediately want to know several things. First, and foremost, I would want to know why you are asking me. Are you asking me because you have simply heard that I have been a member of several boards and you therefore presume that I am experienced? Or are you asking me to serve because you have concluded that I am the best qualified person to fill some particular niche on your carefully constructed leadership team? I would hope that your reason is the latter and that I am being invited because you feel that I have some specific skill or other characteristic which could help your organization to accomplish some needed service in our community. But I would have some other questions to ask as well. For example:

  1. What is the purpose of the organization? Is it well defined? Is it evaluated periodically – preferably annually? Is it being achieved? If not, why not?
  2. Do the bylaws define a structure appropriate to the purpose? Or are they the bylaws of forty-seven years ago, more germane to the situation then than to what we are dealing with today?
  3. May I sit in on a board meeting in order to get a sense of the board, of the organization and of the issues currently being dealt with?
  4. Are there reasonable limits upon how long board members and officers may serve or has the same clique been running the show for years?
  5. Do board members work together in reasonable harmony or is there excessive friction?
  6. May I tour the facilities and meet the executive director?
  7. Is the executive director’s performance evaluated by the board annually and is the process appropriate? Or does the board shirk this as well as other aspects of its supervisory responsibilities?
  8. Is the board truly the governing body? Or is the executive committee a de facto board of directors with the rest of the board only meeting quarterly?
  9. What will be expected of me by way of financial support? Will those expectations be reasonable – or will they be unrealistic or even non-existent?
  10. Are there a sufficient number of committees helping the board to do its work and is active committee service a requirement for all board members?
  11. Does the organization make effective use of national and state association memberships in order to stay abreast of developments in its field of service?
  12. What is the reputation of the board and the organization in the community – specifically among those in the community who are knowledgeable about such matters?

How these questions are answered will have much to do with my acceptance or my rejection of your invitation to join your board. For example, if the same group has been in charge for years, or if there is a history of excessive friction at board meetings, or if the executive committee is really the power group with the other board members in effect being relegated to second class membership, then I probably won’t be very interested in accepting. Negative answers to some of the other questions may also turn me off; unless I feel that I have the necessary time available to devote to working for change for the better from within.

If your organization is in search of capable new members for your board, perhaps begin by looking inward. Ask yourself these twelve questions about your organizations and your board. Answer them honestly and objectively. Will capable people be turned off by what they see or will they be encouraged to join what is clearly an effective team? If the former, then you and the other members of your board obviously have work to do to get your house in order; for capable people will rarely be attracted to a situation where the climate appears unlikely to permit their involvement to result in positive gains for the community or the constituency being served.

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