Every organization’s governing board will only be as effective as its individual members.
There is no fixed formula for determining the composition of a board. Form follows function. The ability of a nonprofit board to help an organization reach its goals depends entirely on how decisions are made and by whom, so each organization needs to evaluate its own needs and priorities and build its board accordingly.
Who is on the board matters, of course. Personal attributes such as commitment to the organization, professional skills, philanthropic spirit, and experience with complex organizations are appropriate to virtually all governing boards. Other attributes are particularly idiosyncratic to the organization, including various demographic considerations such as ethnicity, need for geographical representation, gender, and affiliations with other organizations relevant to the organization’s mission. The board’s membership composition matters if it is to be seen by others as a responsible and civic-minded enterprise in the service of all people.
So, what is your ideal board composition?
Before recruiting, it is important to determine the skills and expertise that you need on your board. Try to answer this question: What is the ideal mix of professional skills, resources, backgrounds and experience, demographics, community connections, and other characteristics that your board requires to navigate the organization’s challenges in the next three to five years?
Always keep in mind the value of diversity in establishing your “ideal” board composition and identifying gaps. Diversity on a board breeds varying opinions, approaches, attitudes, and solutions. It requires all of your board members to be open-minded, curious, accepting, responsive, and willing to work together. Review the additional resources section below for several BoardSource resources related to diversity and inclusion.
Once it is clear what kind of composition your board will need over the next several years, you must assess what characteristics and attributes your current board members bring to the table. Completing a board matrix will allow you to do this. You can download a sample board matrix to help you get started.
The board matrix helps you outline the current mix of skills, demographics, and expertise on your board and then compare it to the ideal mix you identified earlier. Where are there significant gaps? Once you have identified the gaps, you can develop profiles of prospective candidates who would fill these gaps. Draft a short description of the profile that includes the specific skills, expertise, or other characteristics you require in the board prospects. For an example of a profile, view a BoardSource Sample Board Member Job Posting.
Are there certain types of candidates who may present challenges?
When beginning to think through who you want on the board, keep in mind that some types of candidates may add value to your board while others may make board meetings more challenging.
Here are some examples:
- Should you include a customer, client, donor, or other constituent on the board?
- Should you encourage a celebrity to join the board?
- Should you allow a family member of a staff person or other board member to serve on the board?
- Should you recruit a board member who is under 18 years of age?
- Should you expect a board member to donate his/her own professional services to the organization?
For more information about strategic board recruitment, check out these additional resources:
Free Community Resources
- Benefiting from Diversity
- Board Members and Personal Contribution
- Forming the First Board
- Do Nonprofits Need a Board?
Ready for the next step?
After identifying what you need to round out your board’s overall composition, you can start looking for candidates who meet those criteria.