Dear Nonprofiteer, Our organizational node aspires to simplicify complexitudinousness

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m the president of the Board of a community music school, which needs to expand from its current 6 members to about 15. We’ve been looking at guides to Board development, which say that we’re supposed to create a matrix of our needs based on a whole list of factors, and then rank these needs based on a whole other list of factors, and determine our recruitment priorities accordingly. None of us is a professional recruiter, and we’re finding this process more than a little daunting. Can you help?

Signed, Overwhelmed Across the Board

Dear Overwhelmed,

The Nonprofiteer IS a profressional recruiter, and she finds the process you’ve described absolutely opaque. It sounds very much like going to an astrologer to ascertain which car you should buy: the stars may suggest a mink-covered Cadillac, but when you get to the dealer your choice will be between the Prius and the Mercury.

Board recruitment is not an abstract proposition: it’s a matter of identifying actual people who might be interested in the work of your school, and asking them to help with it. The only real purpose of a “needs matrix,” or any other tool, is to make sure that you don’t recruit a roomful of clones: 9 Jewish lawyers who live in the same neighborhood, say. This is a worthy goal–many nonprofits suffer from inbreeding, which works as well there as in the English royal family–but can be accomplished equally well simply by remembering to ask, “How many men do we have now? What color is the Board? Anybody from a suburban area code?”

But the project you’ve described–more than doubling the size of the Board–is not a trivial one, and you should approach it systematically. The Nonprofiteer recommends the following system:

1. Establish what you want Board members to do. That means writing a job description, or statement of Board member responsibilities, that tells prospective members how often they’ll need to attend meetings, what committee duties they’ll have, and–most important–how much money they’ll be expected to give or raise. The Nonprofiteer strongly recommends picking an actual number rather than using weasel language like “stretch gift” or “significant contribution”–you want to attract people who are able to meet your expectations, and you can’t do that unless those expectations are fixed.

2. Identify your sources: students at your community music school, parents of students at the school, teachers and spouses of teachers at the school; staff of suppliers to the school (who sells you instruments, sheet music, janitorial services, catering for your parties?); neighbors of the school; regular audience members for any school performances; current donors. Again, this is not abstract: name names, and come up with a list of about a dozen. If you have more, great, but remember you’re not going to fill all your Board vacancies in a single round of recruitment: 4 now and 4 later is fine, and you should be able to come up with 4 live ones out of a 10- or 12-person prospect list.

3. Decide which people on the list are best able (based on what you know) to meet the expectations you’ve spelled out. If the top 4 or 6 are all men, or all white, or all over 50, look further down the list for diversity. Don’t assume that women, or people of color, or young people can’t or won’t fulfill the Board job duties you’ve specified, including the minimum gift requirement: remember that an annual $500 gift is a year’s worth of Starbuck’s every weekday, and most of your prospects can do that without breaking a sweat.

4. Decide which members of the current Board are best able to connect with your top prospects, and get them to ask the prospect to lunch, breakfast, coffee or bedtime snack.

5. Send the contact Board member and either the Executive Director or a second Board member to the recruiting meal. Play “good cop, bad cop”: contact Board member enthuses about the school; second participant reviews the statement of Board member expectations so the prospect can’t later say “I was never told I’d have to raise money.” Conclude the meal by saying, “Is this something you’d be interested in?–We’ve only got a few openings, so we might ask you to serve on a committee and move onto the Board later, would that be okay?–We’ll get back to you right after our next Board/Board recruitment committee meeting, which is on [SPECIFIC DATE].”

6. Decide if you like the person and get back to him/her exactly on the schedule you’ve described. Hey presto: an expanded Board.

7. Lather, rinse and repeat: once you’ve brought on 4 new Board members, given them committee assignments and oriented them to the work of the school, ask each one “Who else should we be talking to?” Every new member expands your circle of Board prospects, which is to say, your roots in the community.

You’ll notice that there’s no suggestion here that you find an architect, a lawyer, a public relations person and an accountant: that’s because most people don’t want to do as volunteers what they do for money all day long. (Accountants may be an exception; ask your local CPA society if it has an “Accounting for the Public Interest” arm which will send you a trained person willing to serve as your financial watchdog.) It’s also because what you want from Board members is enthusiasm for your cause (in the form of willingness to give time and money) and a connection to the community you serve. Any special skills are gravy. If you need an architect because you’re going into a capital campaign, hire one. If you need public relations help, purchase it. The Board is too important a body to be Balkanized into different skills: you’re looking not for thoroughbreds, each in her own stable, but for a team of horses to pull the cart together.

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Our organizational node aspires to simplicify complexitudinousness”

  1. Holden Says:

    Isn’t the Board supposed to be a governing body? Shouldn’t it therefore be populated by the people who best combine intelligence/expertise with passion for the organization’s values?

    I know a nonprofit needs to raise money, but isn’t there a difference between its biggest donors / best fundraisers and the people most qualified to govern? Is it really necessary to exchange a vote for fundraising allegiance?

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I think it actually IS necessary to “exchange a vote for fundraising allegiance,” though I’d never previously phrased it that way. There are all kinds of volunteers and community representatives connected with nonprofits; the ones who get to govern, though, are the ones who make sure its bills get paid. Because they’re the people who make it possible for the group to accomplish its mission, “them’s what has the gold make the rules.”

    This isn’t, of course, an argument for putting people on the Board who won’t participate in governance–absentee fundraisers don’t belong on the Board any more than absentees of any other description. Every Board member should bring wealth (in the form of fundraising, not necessarily personal wealth), work AND wisdom to the table. Skip any one of those and you don’t get the privilege of running the show.

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