Getting the Right People for the First Board of Directors

When you begin to think about forming a nonprofit organization, one of the first things to consider is the people you will need to help you, and most importantly, the people who will work with you from the beginning, who most likely will evolve into your board of directors.

Nonprofit organizations are required by law to have boards of directors, who are charged with fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the organization, and who have oversight over the entire operation of the nonprofit.

For most small start-ups, the first board of directors may not meet the textbook ideal.  Your first board may consist of you and a couple of friends and maybe a work colleague or two, if you’re lucky enough to have that many people at the outset.  Many boards start off with a husband and wife and a friend or another couple.  And while this initial group may be passionate and committed to the work of the organization, board development must not stop here.  More minds and hands will be needed, analytical thinkers, able—and willing—to ask the hard questions as the nonprofit grows and develops.

As you think about your nonprofit, you might begin by thinking, “Who do I know with deep pockets?”  But that isn’t the best place to start. Instead, think about the skills and abilities the nonprofit’s formation and operation will demand.  For example (and this is certainly not an exhaustive list):

  • Persistence, detail-orientation, zeal
  • “People skills”, entrepreneurship
  • Math skills, financial, bookkeeping, Excel
  • Time management, project management, organizational, planning
  • Persuasion, fundraising, sales
  • Supervisory, personnel/human resource management
  • Verbal, writing, communication
  • Technical, computers, email, word processing, spreadsheets, social media
  • Subject matter expertise

Do you have all these skills, personally?  Probably not; none of us have all of them.  But the Board of Directors—as a whole— needs to have all of them.

The question I am asked most often (after “Do you do grant-writing?”) is “How do I get board members?”  How do you find people with the skills you need?

Talk to people.  Board recruitment, at its most basic, starts with talking to everyone you know.  Notice those for whom your idea seems to click.  Don’t invite these people onto your board immediately.  Instead, start a list, noting the skills you believe they would bring to your organization.  Then follow up with them, invite them to coffee “for an update” or “to tell you more about what I’m thinking”.

Of course, much more must be done to recruit—and keep on recruiting—good board members, and indeed, entire books have been written on the topic.

One way to find both board members and volunteers is through posting your organization’s needs online.  For example, here in SouthCoast, through the region’s United Way agencies, you can post both your organizations volunteer needs and your activities.  Check out Volunteer SouthCoast here.

Once you’ve connected with people who might be good board members, you—or your present board, if it exists yet—should develop a process, rather like a job recruitment process, to get to know prospective board members better; this is especially important if neither you nor your current board members know the person well.  This might include a formal meeting, asking for a resume, maybe a questionnaire; it also might include having the prospective board member join a committee or help with a project, both good ways to assess a person’s fit with your organization. Only when you’re satisfied that the person will be a good addition to your board should you (or your board) invite him or her to join you.

While the need for board members may be critical, it’s important to move slowly, to ensure good fit and commitment—after all, this is someone you hope to be working with for a long time!

If you would like to learn more about boards of directors, I will be talking about nonprofit board governance at following upcoming programs :

  • Tuesday, March 18, at the Fall River Boys & Girls Club, 6:00 pm
  • Thursday, April 10, at the Waypoint Event Center, New Bedford, with Craig Dutra of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts, 5:30 pm. Click here for more info.
  • Tuesday, April 22, at the Legal Center for Nonprofits, New Bedford, part of the Nonprofit Start-up Series, 6:00 pm. Click here for more info.

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