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May 17, 2021
Don't Start with Names when Identifying Board Candidates
By Theresa Hamacher

Theresa Hamacher
Theresa Hamacher
All too often, when nonprofits, especially smaller organizations, are looking to recruit new board members, the process starts with the best of intentions, but then bogs down.

Conversations about board recruiting tend to go like this:
“We really need to recruit some new board members. Should we revive the Nominating Committee? Who was chairing it?”
“I don’t think that we really need to do that. I’m sure that all of us together can come up with some names.”
“We keep talking about raising more money. It would great to get someone who can help with that.”
“Doesn’t one of the founders of Google live in Cambridge? Maybe we can get him on our board.”
“What a great idea! “Does anybody know him?”
And then the conversation stops dead.

A few board members suggest a few other names, but it’s hopeless. The recruiting process ends in failure almost before it has begun.

It’s ironic, because the founder of Google might not even be a good fit for the board. Yes, he’d be able to write checks, but would he be able to attend monthly meetings, set up the silent auction table at the annual gala, or help with the bookkeeping? In other words, he’d be a great donor, but maybe not a good board member.

The fact is, the worst way to begin a board recruiting process is by tossing out a few names. Unfortunately, too many of the names that get suggested in this kind of exercise are likely to be aspirational (like the founder of Google) or comfortable (like the best friend of the board chair).

Instead, boards that recruit successfully follow a disciplined process to identify individuals who are both able and willing to help the nonprofit achieve its mission.

Here are key steps that will help this process go smoothly #147; and succeed.

1) Define What the Organization Needs
Before naming names, the board should think carefully about how it supports the organization. A nonprofit with little or no staff might use board members who are willing to pitch in and help keep the organization running; an issue-oriented organization might want experts in public policy; a large nonprofit might need executives who have experience managing complex organizations.

Of course, every nonprofit wants its board to help with fundraising, but the exact nature of that help varies widely. Do board members manage the annual fundraising mailing, from drafting the appeal letter to stuffing and stamping the envelopes? Do they write grant applications? Do they solicit corporate sponsorships? Or do they focus on introducing their friends to the organization?

Not everyone will want to do all these things—or even be able to them—so being precise about what the organization is looking for will narrow down the recruiting search.

2) Identify Sources of Candidates
Having the right skill set for the tasks at hand isn’t sufficient: candidates must also be committed to the nonprofit’s mission. While supporters can come from any walk of life, every nonprofit has groups of stakeholders that are eager for it to succeed. These stakeholder groups can be great sources for board candidates.

For example, nonprofits serving children should think about recruiting the parents and grandparents of kids who have participated in the program. (And that’s not just because they’re more likely to be committed to the organization’s mission. Parents of school-age children volunteer at high rates, so there’s a better chance they will say “yes” if asked to join the board.)

Identifying these natural constituencies will further focus the recruiting discussion.

3) Only then, List Potential Candidates
Drawing up a list of names is the last step. The first two steps have pre-qualified candidates #147; by defining skills that individuals need to be able to serve and increasing the probability that those individuals will be able to serve.

Focusing on a smaller group of candidates means that the names on this list will be individuals that board members know and can connect with. They’re also likely to consider board membership seriously #147; and there’s a very good chance that they will say yes!

Theresa Hamacher, consultant for ESC and president of NICSA, writes and teaches about nonprofit governance. — 2015 Theresa Hamacher. Used with permission. Email her at
January 2015
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