Seven keys to building a first-rate board for your not-for-profit

Follow Mary Shacklett's expert advice on how to recruit and train board members for your not-for-profit organization.


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CEOs of not-for-profit organizations can have a particularly difficult time finding board members (who are usually volunteers) because they often lack the requisite business skills and acumen of compensated board members on for-profit corporate boards. The skills sought may include a background in finance, marketing/community outreach, or knowledge of a particular industry or technology. Here the seven key ways CEOs of not-for-profits can build stellar boards.

1: Be an active participant in board member recruitment

CEOs who actively recruit new members for their not-for-profit boards are more likely to find the hidden talents and skill sets they want. The more CEOs get to know the people in their constituencies on a first-hand basis, the better their chances of tapping into areas of strength and expertise in people they want on their boards.

2: Seek board members with strong collaborative skills

Volunteer board members might not have every skill set you want, but if they are energized and committed to your organization and its causes and they are team players and solid collaborators, you can accomplish a lot. More than one CEO has lamented contentiousness on the board, which can obviate any gain achieved with strong skills sets because the board can never agree.

3: Find board members who represent a diversity of segments in the constituency you serve

There's a real advantage when you diversify your board, so there is broad representation of the communities you serve. This helps the organization stay focused on all of the communities it serves; it also builds goodwill because different communities in your membership base see that they are represented. Plus, you get board members who understand first-hand what these communities care about.

4: Organize a skill-building program for board members

Whether through training courses or committee work with members of your organization, board members can gain valuable expertise by participating. This works best when you recommend and fund education programs for them that contribute directly to your organization.

5: Set clear board meeting agendas and guidelines

This might be the first time your volunteers are serving on a board, so it's paramount to conduct well-organized board meetings and to instruct members on the protocol of these meetings in terms of presentations, discussions, making motions, and voting.

6: Keep board meetings short and succinct

A board meeting should be conducted and concluded within a two-hour timeframe. Board materials should be distributed to your board members at least two weeks in advance, so they have an opportunity to review materials, ask questions, and fully prepare for the meeting.

7: Vary the election terms of your board members

Most for-profit and not-for-profit organizations adopt a board member election process where only a portion of the board comes up for election each year (often, one-third of the board). This is accomplished by varying what are usually three-year terms for directors. When you ensure a manageable amount of board turnover each year, you also avoid totally disrupting your board, and you can preserve great board working relationships.