No one can replace her

An RFP came across the desk the other day seeking Board development services for an agency facing the transition from founder-run to Board-governed.  There will, of course, be more and more of these as Baby Boomer Executive Directors, many of them their agency’s founders, retire; so herewith some thoughts on Board development.

  1. No Board of Directors ever knows anyone who would be a suitable candidate to join, until such time as someone sits down and asks, "Who should be interested in the work of this institution?  Who benefits from it?"  These are the same questions asked at the start of fundraising, and of course there’s a good reason why: Board recruitment is fundraising writ large, not to mention proto-fundraising and ur-fundraising.  If Boards understand that there are no magical people with magical "contacts" who can take the task of fundraising off their shoulders, they’ll have an easier identifying actual human beings who might want to participate in the task with them.  Comrades are easier to find than saviors.
  2. It’s essential to decide what it is you want Board members to do before you go out to ask people to do it.  That does NOT mean there needs to be some elaborate Board self-evaluation process; every Board is asking new members to give money, raise money and provide expertise to help the agency accomplish its mission.  Every agency also has one thing it needs to accomplish NOW, whether it’s finding a new home, launching a new program, planning a big event or bringing on a new executive; so when you go recruit people, be ready to tell them what that one thing is so they can decide if and how they can help. 
  3. Take two people on those recruitment calls so they can do Good Cop/Bad Cop: one to talk about the wonderful work of the agency and the rewarding nature of membership on its Board; the other to describe in some detail the tasks and challenges facing the group. 
  4. If you’re able to tell people a regular meeting date and time they’re more likely to be able to say yes or no on the spot.  Simple but often overlooked.
  5. Remember that Board recruitment is a no-lose proposition: every prospective Board member will learn more about your organization than s/he knew before.  If worse comes to worst and s/he says "no" to your offer of Board membership, your organization has nonetheless made a new friend, because everyone likes to be chosen and asked.

Finally, and in a whole different category: every Board member, veteran or raw recruit, should realize that recruiting a new Executive Director is going to take more clarity about the group’s mission, and more money, than has ever been necessary before.  So wise founders will start their Boards on the Board recruitment process a year or so pre-retirement, that is, 6 months to bring the Board to full strength and 6 months for that Board to recruit a successor E.D.

And, as Thomas Jefferson replied when someone greeted him as Ben Franklin’s replacement in Paris, "I merely succeed him–no one can replace him."  Rhetoric shapes our conduct, so start calling the non-founder person "the successor" and not "the replacement" ASAP, or the Board will be horribly disappointed to discover how much isn’t being replaced, and how much will have to change once the Founding Parent (usually Founding Mother) is gone.

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