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Building Your Board

“We have several openings on our board. Who knows someone we could add?” As a recruitment strategy, this is like asking an audience for someone to come on stage.

Recruiting Prospective Members

A better approach is to start by doing an analysis of who is on your board. Not only do you want to know their basic characteristics (e.g., gender, age group, and ethnicity), you also want to know the skills, experience, and networks they have. Use this Board Matrix Worksheet from Shorthand Consulting (based on BoardSource's The Handbook of Nonprofit Governance) to get an overview of who you have on the board now, who you are considering, and what is needed.

This excellent board member prospectus developed for Planned Parenthood gives you an idea of the kind of information that needs to be provided to prospective board members: Leadership Prospectus - Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. You can also find an online recruiting tool at boardnetUSA: www.boardnetusa.org. Also see 501 Commons' board prospectus for another example.

But you’re not just filling in categories. This post on Blue avocado provides a good warning about being overly focused on a board matrix: http://www.blueavocado.org/node/762. You need to have “the right people on the bus,” as Jim Collins says in Good to Great. But how do you know who the right people are?

A Well-Balanced Board

To achieve the right combination of skills, experience, and networks on your board, think about the background or expertise needed to help the organization fulfill its strategic/long-range plan. Suppose your plan calls for building a new facility. Does anyone on your board know about property development? You don’t want them there for free services. But you do want them there to be your resident knowledge bank as you go through the process.

Also, consider the overall “personality” of the board. What are the characteristics required of all board members – that is, what binds them to each other and to your organization? If you haven’t developed Core Values, now is the time to do so. The Center for Ethical Leadership's great Core Values Assessment will get you started.

Then, look at the personalities of board members. How does your board deal with risk? Do most people gravitate to long-term thinking or to daily details? Are difficult questions raised?

How to find board members is yet another story. Recruiting friends of current members is OK. But you limit your reach into the community by staying within your existing networks.

Think about the qualities you are seeking. Then identify a community leader who is in a network where some of those qualities are shared. To go back to our example of building a new facility, perhaps a leading commercial real estate broker can be a good resource to you. You’re not necessarily asking her to join the board, although you should be open to the possibility, if she fits your criteria. However, you do want her help in identifying people that match the qualities of the new members you want to recruit. She'll even likely be willing to make an introductory call to pave the way for you to meet with them.

The "Right" Number of Members

There is quite a bit of information and discussion about board size. The general consensus is:

  • Smaller decision-making bodies do a better job of decision-making. Research shows seven is the best size.
  • Traditionally, nonprofit boards are bigger than that, often driven by fundraising needs. The average is about 16.
  • The “right size” depends on the organization’s needs and the role of the board.

According to BoardSource's Leading with Intent report the average board size has remained fairly stable in recent years, averaging 15 members

However, BoardSource cautions against interpreting the mean as an indicator of optimal size for all boards. Every board needs to determine the number of members it needs to function at the most effective level and how to incorporate regular renewal among the members.

You'll also find BoardSource's "pros and cons" of large and small boards – and other insights on The Bridgespan Group's website. Plus, read Blue Avocado's reasons for why the answer to "What size should our board be to be most effective?" is..."It depends."