Building the Right Board — Or Not

Do you want to build a great board of directors for your nonprofit? Sure! But it’s harder than it looks.

Even if you recruit terrific people, which of course is not easy, that’s no guarantee that you’ll have a high-functioning board. A lot of boards turn out to be less than the sum of the parts.

There are many possible reasons for board underperformance, but one may be that your organization has recruited the wrong combination of individuals. Here are three traps well-intentioned nonprofits fall into in their board recruitment.

1. The Noah’s Ark Approach.
In Genesis, there were two of every animal. The modern nonprofit board equivalent is one of every profession. One attorney. One accountant. One human resource professional. One banker. One media person. One IT guy. That sort of thing.

For tiny start-up nonprofits, this might make sense, because it’s likely that the board members will be carrying out much of the day-to-day work. For example, the accountant on the board may actually have to do the organization’s bookkeeping during the first year or two. But once an organization gets large enough to have professional staff, there’s no need to have one of each profession on the board.

Diversity – not only of professions, but of gender, age, race, religion, political viewpoint, and geography – is vitally important. But what a mature organization needs beyond diversity is a core of individuals of whatever background who can see the big picture, serve as ambassadors in the community, connect the organization to sources of financial support, make significant gifts themselves, and – an attribute that is often overlooked – potentially assume the role of board chair.

Ask yourself if the person you’re recruiting has the wisdom, maturity, energy, presence, humor, and commitment to eventually become the board chair. At least a third of your board recruits should fit that profile. If not, you’re setting yourself up for a leadership crisis a few years down the road.

2. The Class Reunion Approach. If everyone on your board knows one another from going to school together, working together, living in the same neighborhood, belonging to the same country club, or going to the same church, you’re going to underachieve as an organization.

People like to recruit their friends to a board. There’s nothing wrong with friendship, of course. (Let the record show that I’m in favor of friendship!) But if everyone on your board already hangs around together, that means you’re drawing from a very small social circle.

As well-regarded consultant Chuck Loring describes it, all board members arrive at an organization with their own spheres of influence. These are the people the board members know from their neighborhoods, work, and activities. If those spheres of influence overlap dramatically, that’s not terribly helpful to the organization, either for getting a multiplicity of viewpoints or for reaching out to the community for support.

3. The More, the Merrier Approach. Some boards have a hard time making choices in their nominating process – so they invite everyone. The by-laws may allow for large boards, but that doesn’t mean that they’re a good idea.

I’ve found that there’s a Goldilocks Rule for boards: some are too large, some are too small, and some are just right. For most organizations, having a board of 12 to 15 provides enough people to share the work and to have a thoughtful conversation with diverse viewpoints, but not so many that it’s possible for people to hide or disengage.

If you have a board of 25 or 30 people, then inevitably the real decisions will be made by a small sub-set – four or five folks. Those leaders will run the show, perhaps through an executive committee. There will be less engagement by the other board members, less commitment, and possibly some resentment.

Make strategic choices in your nominating process. Keep the number of board members in the effective zone.

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It’s important to have a board that’s appropriately diverse, filled with far-sighted, big-picture, well-connected leaders, and of a functional size.

That, of course, is only the first step. I’d love to say that getting the right combination of the right people is all you need to have a successful, high-achieving board. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to it than that. Those other issues are fodder for future blog posts. In the meantime, round up a great bunch of people for your board, will you?

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Matt Gatzke
    May 20, 2014 2:04 pm

    Great post Al….and recommended to my by a mutual friend. With now more than 15 groups as clients, we have a couple of each type of board you’ve mentioned, plus at least one or two hybrids. One of the newer twists for some of our conscripts is that they must first seek the approval of their bosses/owners before accepting a board position. I get that angle when board meetings might take them out of their daytime realm, but less so when they volunteer to serve outside of work hours. All-in-all, board service benefits their employers, though sometimes it is harder to convince them of that fact. Still grappling with the creation of “fiefdoms” especially with some board members who have a tough time relinquishing certain “favored” responsibilities.

  • Al,

    As is always the case, I appreciate and agree with your thoughtful and wise advice, this time, on building high-performing nonprofit boards. One additional caution I give to my clients is that they should avoid, at virtually all costs, the use of the “Anybody” board recruitment strategy. It typically is summoned when the agenda topic is the board’s current, or upcoming, board vacancies. The Governance Committee Chair, or the Board Chair, earnestly asks, “Does anybody know anybody who would make a good board member?” Or worse, “Does anybody know anybody who might be willing to join our board?”

    Whenever I summon this caution on behalf of a board with which I’m working, members around the table invariably make sheepish eye-contact with one another and subtly, but still noticeably, nod, as if to day, “Yep, we’ve done that.” The good news is that raising this practice will lead to a more thoughtful strategy that is right for the stage of the life cycle of that particular nonprofit.

    Thanks again, Al, for sharing your thinking on so many important nonprofit issues.



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