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Things to Look for When Selecting Your Nonprofit Board Members

Luisa MeloniMarketing & Sales Intern

Luisa Meloni,

Marketing & Sales Intern

Aug 05, 2021

To serve on a nonprofit board as a member, it takes more than just having ‘influence’. That’s why it's critical that you assess and scrutinize each candidate in terms of mindsets, skills, and traits you consider essential for your board of directors. Thorough selection criteria for a nonprofit board member seat will save your organization many headaches in the long run and lead it to success. Shallow criteria can prove to be a recipe for disaster and may contribute towards sinking your nonprofit.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by Stanford, 27% of nonprofit directors believe that their board members lack a sound understanding of the strategy and mission of their organization. To help you put together solid and thorough selection criteria, we asked 51 experts about skills, traits and strengths, and other things you should consider before offering a board of director seat to someone.

Quick Reads

Choose People Who Work in the Service Industry

I recommend appointing board members with backgrounds that are distinct from but complementary to those of the other directors. Attorneys and accountants are examples of service professionals who can add diversity to the board of directors. Furthermore, the board of directors is frequently tasked with reviewing financial statements, contracts, and agreements. Attorneys and accountants can offer advice and recommendations to help management make better decisions.

Lisa Lacey, Lisa Buys Austin Houses

Choose People with the 4 C's

There are so many traits that nonprofits could examine while selecting board nominees, but there are some that are critical to any successful selection process. As a former board member and nonprofit executive, these four traits are the most meaningful to selecting the best person, during the right time, for the greatest outcome. When nonprofits are able to achieve the four “C’s” of board selection, amazing things can happen:

Community

Board members must have a community in which they are active participants. Monetary and other resources are key to boards being successful; it’s through the interdependence of board members that a variety of communities can come together and meet on behalf of the nonprofit’s mission.

Curiosity

When board members are inherently curious, a nonprofit can focus on running the business, and not be straddled with the onus job of inspiring the board. Curiosity fuels boards to be proactive, innovative, and bullish on not failing, while subsequently igniting a culture of hope, fortitude, and excellence.

Commitment

The fundamental requirement of any act of service is commitment. Committed board members set a tone for the board, the nonprofit, and the internal and external stakeholders. That tone illuminates the hard work, focus, and determination that is embedded in the people (the board) who set the vision and direction for the nonprofit.

Currency

Yes, currency is key. And not just monetary funds that board members bring to the table, but also the social capital, the intellectual capital that they bring to the board. When nonprofits are able to select board members who understand currency, in all its forms, the board that will be constructed is literally unstoppable.

Glenn Thomas, _Heart Work Leadership Group

Ask the Candidates about their “Other Commitments”

A conscientious board director is passionate about his/her organization therefore regularly attends the meetings. The “other commitments” of many board members even in large nonprofits and charitable organizations prevent them from showing up in the board meetings regularly, and when they somehow show up, they’re not prepared most of the time. This is due to the fact that many members on boards of directors are serving on other boards, so they have to choose between two or more meetings when the conflict arises. And when that happens, they cannot be well prepared. So while recruiting a member, always ask such questions that help you reveal their “other commitments”.

Eden Cheng, WeInvoice

Look for Skill Development Potential

Boards can either conduct their own search and recruitment efforts or hire a search firm to assist them. In any case, before beginning the search for new board members, nonprofit boards must decide on the types of people, as well as the skills and abilities, that will make up a quality, well-rounded board of directors. Boards may find that assessing the skills they already have and developing a list of skills and capabilities they still require is the best approach. It's beneficial for boards to have members with expertise in a variety of areas, such as law, finance, governance, business, or other critical areas. Social and cultural skills are also important.

Edward Shaw, Leeline Sourcing

Look for People Who are Not Afraid to ask Uncomfortable Questions

Selecting a board of directors for Nonprofits: Board members need to be passionate about the goals of the organization. Do not look for resume builders or groupies. Board members can be friends with the ministry leaders, but they need to also be able to take off the friend hat and be prepared to ask uncomfortable questions. They must require clear standards to be met. Too often board members are apprehensive about offending the ministry team which results in avoiding the hard conversation. Board members need to have expertise and influence, but they should not all think and act alike. Board members should be required to give of their time, talent, and funds but there should be no need to set a scale. Board members need to remember the past but be forward-thinking and willing to challenge the status quo. Diversity is key to a successful board, developing board members across generations will create more long-term continuity and make boarding and succession easier. Prayerful, deliberate action is necessary when selecting persons to serve on a board of directors.

Scott Toal, eMite

Choose People with a Deep Understanding of Governance Structure and their Role

I work at Gordon College as Executive Director for the school's Career and Connection Institute (i.e. career services). So I’m an expert in all things career-related. In addition to that, I do a ton of board work. A renowned expert. As part of that, I lead a podcast called Boardroom Bound. This means I’m an expert on what it takes to create an exciting and interesting episode. As a result, I’m an excellent guest – I can ensure an audience is engaged, informed, and entertained. Nonprofit boards need to look for a few things, including finding a board member who is:

Enthusiastic about the organization

You need a board member who will roll up their sleeves and deliver on their work. This is much more likely to happen if the board member truly believes in the organization rather than just wanting a board seat for their resume.

Understands of their role

Many nonprofit boards ask their biggest donors to serve on their boards. This can lead to trouble if that large donor wants them to become part of management and help do the implementing of decisions. The board’s role is strategy and governance; it’s not to be part of the management team. That can become very awkward if the board member is one of the largest donors.

Alexander Lowry, Gordon College

Look for Strategic Thinking Skills

It is not necessary to select people with board experience or prior experience as business leaders when forming a new board of directors. Board members should be people who share their mission and are passionate about making a difference in the cause. For a well-rounded board, boards should aim for a balance of talent and abilities. Great strategic thinkers with some level of business or organizational competency who understand the principles of good business practices will be excellent candidates. They should be individuals who are aware of the distinctions between governance and management. Management operates and is accountable for programs, while governance establishes the organization's missions and programs.

Richard Latimer, Veritas Buyers

Choose People who Understand their Role in the Governance Structure

Many nonprofit boards ask their biggest donors to serve on their boards. This can lead to trouble if that large donor wants them to become part of management and help do the implementing of decisions. The board’s role is strategy and governance; it’s not to be part of the management team. That can become very awkward if the board member is one of the largest donors.

Choose people who don’t have any conflict of interest with the management

Consider the relationship between potential directors and management. Board members are frequently faced with difficult decisions regarding budgets, personnel, and compensation. Check to see if any potential members have a conflict of interest with management or other key personnel. Members of the board of directors must have strong moral values and personal integrity. These values assist members in making decisions that are best for the organization rather than for personal or management financial gain.

Martin Boonzaayer, The Trusted Home Buyer

Organisation’s Size and Life Stage Plays an Important Role in Board Composition

I have 30+ years of cumulative experience as a nonprofit board member, including two times as board president. I have also served as an executive director and member of four governance committees. I am a Certified Governance Consultant through BoardSource. It’s important to consider the organization’s life stage when selecting members for a board. If an organization is still small without sufficient paid staff, board members will need to be prepared for hands-on work as well as their governance role. Larger, older organizations with ample professional staff will want to look for board members who can focus on governance and making fundraising connections rather than someone who wants to stay “in the weeds.” Diversity is also an important consideration—do you have individuals on your board who represent the population you serve? For example, if your organization serves children with disabilities, are any parents on the board? Is your board representative of your overall community? Do members offer a variety of professional expertise and viewpoints?

Stephanie Cory, Epilepsy Foundation of DE

Find People who Reflect the Organization's Social and Cultural Diversity

There was a time when having board members who were socially or professionally well-known in their communities and could merely lend their names to the organization would suffice, but those days are long gone. A nonprofit should start its search by determining what skills it requires on its board of directors. These could be specific professional abilities, such as financial management or human resource management. It could be familiarity with the community or constituency that the organization was established to serve. It may, for example, be especially vital for the board to reflect the organization's social and cultural diversity — literally, to look like the organization and the people it serves. All of these considerations must be taken before any search effort can begin.

Jennifer Harder, Jennifer Harder Brokerage

Choose Board Members with 3 Ts (Time, Talent, and Treasure [resources])

I am an NYC-based Executive Recruiter specializing in board recruitment. I have been recruiting directors for businesses as well as non-profits for the past 23 years. Additionally, I founded my own 501c3 called The Half Percent Project and recruited a stellar board for this animal welfare organization. To answer your query, in addition to qualifications, the following should be evaluated as part of the board recruiting process. First and foremost is a passion for the mission of the organization. Board members should be very interested and committed to whatever the organization is doing.

Capacity to Serve

Capacity to serve is also important. Some people may be very passionate about the organization but not very available due to other commitments. It is important to assess this in the recruitment process. There is one caveat however, there may be a very high profile or wealthy potential board member that is less available but provides gravitas and/or funds to the organization. This is important as well. The Key is to have a balance between those that are going to spend the time and those that are going to raise the profile and finances of the organization.

Personality for improving communication effectiveness across the board

Important personality traits for all board members whether they be for-profit or not-for-profit: communication skills (both written and verbal), analytical skills, ability to ask tough questions without offending, strategic thinking, systems thinking (ability to think about and understand the organization in its entirety), open to the ideas of others and comfortable discussing complex issues and principled values and a strong moral character.

Patricia Lenkov, Agility Executive Search LLC

Keep in Mind the Principle of Ying and Yang

There is much that goes into a good Board member, qualification is just a start. In my experience, qualifications have been most important when there has been an area of need on the Board. The main criteria for a good Board member seem to change based on the dynamics of the Board. For example, sometimes a strong team player is what's needed to facilitate strong group dynamics. Conversely, sometimes it's best to get somebody who is willing to question the status quo and look for better. In the end, it changes and Boards always operate best when they find this yin and yang balance between Board cohesiveness, alongside legitimate criticism for improvement.

Greg Hood, Heart Work Leadership Group

Find People who can offer Effective Oversight into the Operations

Ascertain that prospective directors have a thorough understanding of the organization's purpose. Nonprofit organizations engage in activities that directly benefit their constituents. As a consequence, the organization's board of directors should include people who understand both the member's requirements and the resources needed to meet those demands. For instance, an organization that offers hospice care to terminally sick patients may welcome to its board of directors a registered nurse with expertise in end-of-life circumstances. The nurse is able to discuss the patient's feelings and recommend medical supplies that are necessary for patient care.

Richard Mews, Sell With Richard

Select Those Who Help you Recruit Additional Board Members when Needed

Invite people who are prepared to make the time commitment needed to serve on the board. The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) stresses the importance of selecting people who are willing to prepare for and attend board and committee meetings when recruiting board members. Additionally, choose members who will do assigned tasks and attract new board members. In general, a nonprofit organization's board of directors meets regularly and may conduct committee meetings as well. Additionally, board members are often asked to help at community activities. Choose people that are willing to meet and surpass the time commitments needed.

Ebony Chappell, formspal

Consider Community Business Leaders and Exceptional Young Individuals for a Board Seat

By extending your search, You Can Diversify Your Board. Consider community business leaders; exceptional young individuals; and active volunteers with other groups. Include those who are not you or your coworkers. Numerous boards suffer from a lack of racial and economic diversity. They all have a similar appearance, a similar way of life, and they all reside in the same areas. In an ideal world, your board would reflect the ethnic diversity of the individuals you serve. To recruit a diverse board of directors, you and your nominating committee may need to stretch your comfort zones and actively seek out individuals who look and live differently. Avoid avoiding this problem. It is much too critical.

Vladimir Novosselov, Giving Palette

Settle the Mission for the Different Types of Boards

This is Katie Garcia. I have worked in and been a consultant to nonprofits across the United States. I have also served on nonprofits boards and am currently Chair-Elect of a multi-disciplinary arts nonprofit serving youth in New York City. When choosing someone for a nonprofit board, it is important to first consider the mission of the nonprofit board. Is it a working board, where the expectation is for board members to actively participate in the work of the organization, or an advisory board, where the board is charged with setting the high-level vision for the organization and contributing financially and at an advisory level?

Skills sets

There are different expectations for each type of board, as well as skill sets that are of greatest value depending on which kind of board you have. Once you have clarity on what kind of board you have, you can use that clarity to figure out what kinds of skills and experiences will best serve the board you have or the board you seek to create.

The Values

It is also important when selecting a board member to consider a person's values and commitment to the organization’s vision and mission. Board members are stewards of the vision, mission, and values of the organization. Effective board members model the values of their organization and use the values, vision, and mission of the nonprofit to guide their engagement within the board and with the organization. For nonprofit boards to be most effective, it is essential that all its members have a clear understanding of and are aligned with the vision and mission of the organization and operate based on the nonprofit’s values.

Katie Garcia, Logos Consulting Group

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