Building a Nonprofit Board for the First Time

Starting a new organization is exciting, but can also be daunting! Consider all your options before jumping into the necessary tasks of starting a new organization. There are other options if you want to do the work but not run an organization such as partnering with another organization or  creating a fiscal sponsorship arrangement with an established organization. If you have decided a new organization is the way to go, the first step is to build a founding board.

Founding Board Overview

A founding board is critical to a new organization’s start and implementing an organization’s vision. Many new founders add their friends as board members, which they often regret. Building your board entails recruiting committed and resourceful volunteer board members, organizing the first board meeting, and, most importantly, guiding the new board on its roles and responsibilities.

Recruiting the First Board

Start by recruiting a small but committed group – decide what the ideal size is to get the initial work done. If you can hire staff, define your role either as a board member or as part of the management team, remembering that the executive leader reports to the board who has the power to remove them.

The start-up phase serves as an initiation for the board. If there is no staff yet, which is often the case, the board must also serve in that capacity. All board members must be willing and able to commit the time needed to set up the organization. For example, if the nonprofit exists only as an idea, the next step is to incorporate the organization and apply for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), if appropriate.

Recruiting Board Members

Board members can drastically change how the board operates and what role it plays.  As evidenced in Purpose-Driven Board Leadership boards represent and govern organizations on behalf of communities.  It is imperative the founding board has the skills and expertise needed to start an organization, while representing the communities they serve.

As shown in Leading with Intent, almost half of executives report that they do not have the right board members to “establish trust with the communities they serve.” Only a third of boards (32%) place a high priority on “knowledge of the community served,” and even fewer (28%) place a high priority on “membership within the community served.”

While board composition is not one-size-fits-all, a board that is homogeneous in any way risks its ability to make the best decisions and plans for the organization. A lack of racial and ethnic diversity is particularly concerning, as it may result in strategies and plans that ineffectively address societal challenges and inequities, or even reinforce them.

Recruit people who understand your mission area and are familiar with your constituents and their needs. If you are dependent on outside funding, involve someone who can assist in developing a fundraising plan and policy. Look for innovative people who have new ideas and can work as a team. It’s beneficial to keep group dynamics in mind.

Where to Find Board Members

Board recruitment can be difficult. Where can you find individuals who are interested in the mission of the organization, have time to give, have the needed skills and expertise, and can provide leadership for the organization? Many people look to the following for referrals or actual candidates:

  • Personal and professional networks
  • Affinity groups
  • Other nonprofits
  • Professional associations
  • Major corporations and their community outreach programs
  • Local businesses
  • Local nonprofit support organizations, United Way chapters, or community foundations
  • News or printed media featuring community leaders
  • Local board matching programs, as available

The First Board Meeting

For some, the first board meeting is the first official opportunity for board members to meet each other. For other boards, there may have been plenty of prior communication. No matter what, this meeting starts the formal activity of the board as a legal entity. During the first meeting, the board must:

  • Fix the name and the legal address for the organization to be included in its legal documents
  • Elect officers
  • Authorize new officers to make business decisions for the organization such as opening bank accounts, signing checks, signing a lease.
  • Adopt a set of bylaws, if already drafted, or start creating this document
    • Implement terms and term limits to allow your board to refresh itself and bring in new ideas on a regular basis
  • Assign duties for everyone

Consider How the New Board Will Work

Now that you have created your first board and planned the first board meeting, it is time to train them to their roles and determine how the board’s work will be accomplished.

  • Create committees or task forces to accomplish the board’s work and engage your board members.
  • Start with a governance committee that is tasked with renewing the board and educating it. The governance committee should understand their own responsibilities prior to orienting new board members. This committee can:
    • Orient new board members.
    • Train and develop the board as to their role.  It is important the board understands the work of the organization as well as the role of the board.
    • Emphasize that boards act only as a collective entity — decision-making is a group function.

As you start building a nonprofit board and orienting them, tell us what additional resources you need for your founding board.


101 Resource | Last updated: September 18, 2023

Resource: The Board Building Cycle: Finding, Engaging, and Strengthening Nonprofit Board Members