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October 25, 2020
Build a Better Board, Starting Right Now
By Sarah Lange

Sarah Lange
Sarah Lange
In survey after survey, nonprofit executives cite poor board performance as their number one challenge while nonprofit board members frequently report that they are bored and feel underutilized. What’s going on with nonprofit boards that makes everyone so unhappy?

If your goal is to have board members who are excited, engaged, and effective board members, you need to create and invest time in a board development system that operates year-round and includes recruitment, orientation, activation, re-engagement, and celebration.

You wouldn’t go out on a first date with someone and ask him/her to marry you, right? Yet, we often recruit board members without getting to know them first. And sometimes they say “yes,” without getting to know us.

Like dating, board recruitment requires getting to know one another to see if the match is a good one. During the recruitment process, both parties should be asking questions #147; particularly about roles, responsibilities, expectations, etc.

Know Who You Want
Before you can recruit new board members, determine what type of people you’re looking for. Which skill sets, life experiences, and perspectives will help forward your organization’s mission in new, interesting, and powerful ways? Where are these people hanging out? How would you go about meeting them?

As altruistic as someone may be, humans operate out of self-interest. Remember, you are asking these people to make a significant, multi-year commitment to your organization. What will be compelling enough to warrant sacrificing hours and hours of their time—as well as some of their money—to further the cause?

Recruitment needs to happen year-round. What opportunities are you providing—on an ongoing basis—for people to come in, take a look around, and get to know your agency? Have you built pipelines that help volunteers and donors get more deeply involved in the life of the organization? If not, it’s time to revisit your ad hoc committee structure #147; or create one!

Once you’ve identified and recruited your prospective board members, invite them (one at a time) to attend a board meeting so everyone has a chance to meet, ask, and answer questions. This will provide the entire board with a sense of whether this person will be a good fit for the group and the organization.

While most agencies have an annual nominating process, others are moving to an on-the-fly process which allows good board candidates to join the group as they’re identified, rather than making them wait (and risk losing them!) a period of months. Whatever nominating process you use, it should be in alignment with your organization’s mission, vision and culture.

Develop a Formal Orientation Program
Once you’ve adopted your new board members, provide them with a formal and comprehensive orientation. This should include a tour of the facilities, the ability to meet and ask questions of staff, a review of the board manual (if you don’t have one, now’s the time to create one), and a Q&A session.

Successful boards pair veteran members with new ones to help speed the acclimation and activation process. Too often, new board members are allowed to sit dormant for too long. Activate your new board members right away by assigning them to a committee based on their skills and interests to maintain their enthusiasm.

At the end of each year, check with each board member to make sure he/she wants and is able to continue playing an active role. These interviews send the signal that being on the board is serious business and provides an opportunity for board members to reconnect to their passion, rekindle their enthusiasm. While you’re at it, ask board members what’s working and what’s not #147; then do more of the former and eliminate the latter.

If someone has disappeared from your board, don’t just give them the boot #147; reach out and find out what’s going on. Providing an opportunity to let them step down with grace will maintain their good will. You may be able to activate them in a different role later on (oh, say, when you launch that capital campaign you’ve been thinking about...).

Celebrate Your Accomplishments
Even though nonprofit boards have a lot of work to do, it’s important to celebrate individual and group accomplishments. Acknowledging special moments in a board member’s life helps him/her feel more connected and committed to the group. Celebrating what’s going well helps people want to do more of the same. Remember: success breeds success.

Finally, stop boring your boards. If your board is using a Liturgical Agenda (call to order, attendance, review of minutes, report after report after report... new business, old business) and/or Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure, knock it off! We do not live in a parliamentary society and the last thing board members want after a long day is reading or listening to reports. Use a Consent Agenda and consensus, and prepare to be amazed at the power, creativity, and passion that’s unleashed.

Sarah Lange is principal and founder of New Era, which helps invigorate nonprofit boards to help them reach new heights. Call her at 508-733-5114 or email to
August 2013
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