Lay the Foundation

Before beginning to recruit new board members, lay the foundation for a successful recruitment process.

Once you have a strong foundation, including established organizational policies and board member job descriptions, the board should address key questions to guide the recruitment process.

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The Board Recruitment Center was developed with generous support from the Deerbrook Charitable Trust.

Before recruiting new board members, make sure that you have

  • An updated board member job description

    An up-to-date job description informs prospective board members of their roles and responsibilities

  • A board member letter of agreement

    The letter of agreement helps both new board members and current officers understand exactly what is expected of a board member with your organization

Providing this information early is an easy way to improve your recruitment process.

Make the recruiting process easier by ensuring both you and the prospective board member are on the same page.

Help avoid an early resignation of a board member who didn’t understand the commitments.

Ensure that you will have an eager and engaged new board member who understands his/her role on the board.

It is also important to have established policies regarding term limits, conflicts of interest, the process and criteria for re-nomination to the board or for removing a board member, and the board’s role in fundraising.

Sample job descriptions, letters of agreement, and policies can be found in The Nonprofit Policy Sampler.

Once you have your policies in place, it is time to think through the recruitment process. Having an organized recruitment process not only makes it possible to fill vacancies on a board in an effective and speedy manner, but it also creates a foundation for building a skillful and diverse board over the long-term. It allows the organization to cultivate potential candidates and to prepare them to join the board when the time is right.

The recruitment process should address key questions, outlined below.

Who should play a role in board recruitment?

The search for board members should be an ongoing collaborative effort of the board and the chief executive, with the board leading the process, usually through the governance committee.

A well-balanced and functioning board depends on the sustained hard work of the governance committee. Its task is to find the best candidates, introduce them to the benefits of serving on your board, interest them in joining the board, present the candidates to the full board, and after the final nomination, make sure the new board members are well equipped to do the best possible job.

The chief executive can provide valuable assistance to the governance committee by assessing the board’s current needs, identifying valuable prospects, and helping to inform and integrate new board members into their new roles.

While the chief executive has a role to play in board recruitment, he or she should not handpick board members or exert undue influence in selecting candidates. Why? Because it is a clear conflict of interest for a chief executive to select the board members who ultimately assess his or her performance and determine his or her compensation.

The chief executive therefore should not recommend for possible nomination individuals with whom he or she has a personal, business, or family relationship and should clearly disclose if he or she has this type of relationship with a candidate being considered by the governance committee.

How many people should be on the board?

There is no “right” size for a board — each board needs to define its optimal capacity at any given time. There are several considerations to keep in mind when determining the size of your board, including state law, your organization’s bylaws, and other factors.

In most states, the laws dictate the minimum size for nonprofit boards. Usually it is three, but in some states only one board member is required. Please note that a small board with only one member would rarely be able to incorporate a diverse view of perspectives and attributes necessary for a forward-thinking organization.

In addition, your organization’s bylaws will usually establish the size of your board. It is wise to set a guideline within a certain range, not an exact number, so that an unforeseen situation does not force the board to contradict its bylaws. However, it is important to always stay within the guidelines established by your bylaws.

 

Common Characteristics of Large and Small Boards

Large boards

Pros:

  • A larger size provides enough people to more easily manage the board’s work load.
  • Fundraising becomes less of a burden when the responsibility is divided among many members.
  • More perspectives are represented.

Cons:

  • Bigger boards may not be able to engage every board member in a meaningful activity, which can result in apathy and loss of interest.
  • Meetings can be difficult to schedule.
  • There is a tendency to form cliques and core groups, thus deteriorating overall cohesion.
  • There is a danger of loss of individual accountability.
  • It may be difficult to create opportunities for interactive discussions.

Small boards

Pros:

  • Communication and interaction is easier. Board members get to know each other as individuals.
  • Potential satisfaction from service can be greater due to constant and meaningful involvement.
  • Every person’s participation counts.

Cons:

  • Heavy work load may create burnout.
  • Fundraising may become a major burden on the shoulders of a few.
  • Important opinions or points of view might not be represented.

Average Board Sizes

Remember that every board is different. Average figures only reflect what exists, not a recommended norm. Newly formed boards often start cautiously with a small number of members, and expand as the organization becomes more established and the programs and services diversify. A recent BoardSource survey found that, among those nonprofits who responded, the average size of a board is 16 members and the median is 15 members.

 

Ready for the next step?

Have you outlined your recruitment process? If so, now it’s time to think about your ideal board composition.

Envision your ideal board