Board members are not hypothetical constructs

It’s fairly common among Board development writers and consultants to suggest that nonprofits take inventory of their current Boards and develop lists of what they need and want to add to the strengths of those Boards. Then [goes the conventional wisdom] put your list in priority order, and you’ll be ready to do Board recruitment.

To which the Nonprofiteer responds: what a waste of time. What’s the point of identifying a desired outcome (“Someone wealthy, with lots of connections, who’s eager to do fundraising”) if there’s no way to accomplish the outcome? What’s the point of fantasizing about imaginary people (“Someone wealthy, with lots of connections, who’s eager to do fundraising”) when the point is to find real people and attract them to your cause?

The real process of Board development takes place when an entire Board sits down in a room (with a consultant, if necessary, but just having a strong leader and a good note-taker will be plenty) and says: who do we know? After the obligatory 10 minutes of “We don’t know anybody,” people will start saying, “Well, there is my cousin’s brother-in-law, who owns the copy shop on Fourth Street and has been looking for a Board to join . . .”. It may not be as glamorous as “Oprah” but it has a lot more chance of producing community members who are willing to join and support your cause–and that’s what Board members are.

It it’s so simple [I hear you cry], why do most Boards find it so hard? Because they neglect the essential first step: deciding what it is they truly want and expect Board members–all Board members, not just new recruits–to do. If you don’t write a job description, you’ll find it remarkably difficult to identify anybody who can do the job, and even more difficult to persuade him/her/them to take it on.

Which highlights yet another common error among Boards trying to do recruitment: getting preoccupied with describing the job they want someone else to do. “We want a lawyer, and an accountant, and someone to do fundraising, and someone to write our newsletter”–no. What you want is people who will join you in identifying and assigning all of the tasks a Board must do to keep its agency healthy. Maybe it’s best to use a Board member as your lawyer; maybe it’s better to hire a lawyer. Ditto accountants. Ditto marketing professionals. What you must have is people who understand that they face not one but many tasks, and not individually but collectively–and the people you recruit will only understand that if you do. You are not seeking someone to fill a position; you are seeking someone to share with you the position you already occupy.

So–to summarize–Board members are not hypothetical constructs. They’re actual people who, in conjunction with you and other actual people you will recruit, will perform actual tasks in support of your actual institution. So proceed as follows:

  1. Identify those tasks, and write them down.
  2. Identify people who might be interested in supporting your agency, and then compare their known skills and abilities to the tasks you’ve identified.
  3. Go talk to those people! Even if half of them say “no,” the other half will say “yes,” and you’ll have a set of new Board members–

instead of another set of charts describing the Board members you wish you had.

If this process sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same process every successful charity uses in beginning a capital campaign–asking the people around the table, “Who do you know?” Board development is fundraising is Board development; the closer your process hews to a successful fundraising process, the more likely you are to create a Board that will do its fundraising job.

And let’s dispense with a favorite nonsensical quarrel: between those who think you have to recruit people with passion for your mission and those who think you have to recruit people who have the ability to fundraise. The answer is “both;” and the other answer is, “No one is born with either.” If you talk to a stranger about your mission and s/he catches fire with it, s/he’s eligible in the passion department, even if s/he hasn’t been a long-term supporter: enthusiasm is contagious, and of course you have it, right? By the same token, if you talk to someone who knows and loves you and says “I’ll do anything for you, but I don’t know anything about raising money,” the appropriate reply is, “Don’t worry, we’ll teach you.”

Raising money is nothing more than stating the case for an institution you love to people with the resources to support it. Board recruitment is nothing more than stating the case for an institution you love to people who will be prepared to do the same thing. Let’s stop complicating it, and preparing for it, and just get out there and do it. [Life is not a dress rehearsal.] Real people–the restaurant owner down the block, the lawyer who spent $600 at your last auction, the retired engineer who organized your inventory down to the last screwdriver–are waiting to be asked.


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10 Responses to “Board members are not hypothetical constructs”

  1. Hildy Gottlieb Says:

    Oh thank you! What a great attitude! “Board recruitment is nothing more than stating the case for an institution you love to people who will be prepared to do the same thing.” Yes and yes again!

    Having written the most popular manual on Board Recruitment in the sector, your quote above is golden – thank you so much for saying it!

    Hildy Gottlieb
    Author: Board Recruitment & Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide.

  2. Nonprofit Board Recruitment | Creating the Future! Says:

    […] over at the Nonprofiteer had a great blog post today – a rallying cry to stop whining about board recruitment and just get out there and do it! (Ok, to […]

  3. Qui Diaz Says:

    Hi Kelly,

    Saw this post on Give & Take today – timed perfectly for some thoughts I’m about to compile on It’s so true: you have to know what you’re asking for before you recruit.

    Thanks – in general – for your great blog and thoughts. Have been checking in for years.


  4. Volunteer U.0 | Your Time, Talent & Treasure » The Buzz Bin Says:

    […] might have been channeling Good to Great’s mantra when she posted yesterday about the need to efficiently recruit board members. First identify goals and tasks, then find the right people. Even if they lack some of the […]

  5. Surviving the Economy & Building a Better Board « Northwest PA’s Grant Resource Center Says:

    […] Nonprofiteer, learn more about developing an effective board of directors.  After reading ”Board Members are Not Hypothetical Constructs,” we can finally “… dispense with a favorite nonsensical quarrel: between those […]

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  8. Nonprofiteer Says:

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  9. An oldie but a goodie « The Nonprofiteer Says:

    […] By Nonprofiteer A recent publication in Contributions Magazine of the Nonprofiteer’s rant “Board Members are not Hypothetical Constructs” produced the following helpful comment from Pamela Hawley of Universal Giving: I recently read your […]

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