One of the responsibilities of a board of directors is to manage and maintain itself. This responsibility includes recruiting new board members, providing adequate training for members, ensuring members are following through on their board responsibilities, and evaluating how well the board, as a whole, is doing its job.
Strategic recruitment is an important part of building an effective board, providing the opportunity to get people around the board table with the necessary skills and community connections to help strengthen the organization’s work. New board members may introduce fresh perspectives to the organization and provide opportunities to build relationships with new constituencies for visibility, programming, and support.
Strategic recruitment is a year-round activity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that an organization is continually bringing new people to the board, but rather that it is always looking for people who show interest in the organization and who have the qualities it needs at its current stage of development.
Identifying prospective board members
An organization should look first to its board committees and its supporter database for possible board candidates. It makes sense to draw new board members from a pool of people who have shown interest and commitment to the organization through their work on a committee, by attending an event, or by volunteering or contributing financially. These individuals are likely candidates for even deeper involvement with the organization.
Once board member possibilities have been identified, the existing board should think strategically about which of these people are the best fit for the organization’s current work. First, the board should look at the skills and community connections that it currently has around its board table. Then it should examine its strategic plan and consider the work the organization has ahead of it. It should determine what board member skills and capabilities will be necessary to accomplish this work. If there are gaps in the skills and connections that the board will need, strategic board recruitment can help address those gaps. In examining the long list of prospective board members, the board can identify—and then actively recruit—those candidates who bring necessary skills and connections to the organization.
The myth of the ideal board
There is no magic formula that guarantees a successful board. The structure of the board—including the number of members—is outlined in the organization’s bylaws, but this provides only general guidance. Boards perform differently in the various stages of an organization’s life. A start-up organization may have an intensely active working board that performs many functions (in addition to its governance and policy functions) that a more mature organization with professional staff members will not need the board to perform. Organizations that focus on finding the ‘ideal’ board model or ‘ideal’ number of board members often have engagement or other board challenges that should be addressed in other ways.
Build the team
Fundamentally, the members of the board are a team that works together to advance the organization. Board orientation and education can help with this, but often, it simply takes time for board members to get to know one another and begin to work well together. Boards that have an ongoing recruitment cycle and are constantly introducing new players to the team may have a more difficult time melding the individual board member strengths into a strong and well-functioning whole. Boards must consider this when determining whether new board members will be added once a year (typically at the beginning of the fiscal year) or throughout the year.
An effective board should be greater than the sum of its parts, and strategic board recruitment is an important part of building this synergy. Thoughtful, intentional recruitment provides the opportunity to address gaps in skills, knowledge, or connections. By carefully and consistently building a board with a greater number of skills and connections, the board is doing its part to create the conditions that will help the organization thrive.