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The 7 Recruiting Principles of Highly Effective Nonprofit Boards

April 15, 2021

Board-member-serviceThe challenges of governing a nonprofit are often more complicated than those faced by board members of similar-sized for-profit entities. This is because nonprofit board members are called upon to be trustees of the public good, voices for their communities, advocates of their cause, and ambassadors eager to build a band of true believers, giving their organizations the best chance to create the greatest impact for the most people.

Attending to the seven principles of highly effective nonprofit boards can help your organization set the stage for success:

Principle #1: Culture. Every board has a culture — either by default or intention. Culture is the foundation on which sound governance is built. Healthy cultures are inquisitive and invite diverse perspectives and debate. They embrace generative and strategic thinking. Innovation is valued. In healthy cultures, board members work collaboratively and with humility to solve problems. Members understand their governance oversight responsibilities. They respect the role of management and form a constructive partnership with the CEO. They are intellectually and emotionally invested in the cause they serve and are its champions. Reorienting or reinventing a productive, conscious culture does not happen overnight. It requires board members to recognize the problematic culture and, once they recognize its consequences, accept that it must change and commit to implementing that change.

Principle #2: Character. The time to screen for character is before a board member is seated. Too often, assumptions are made about a person's character based on first impressions or just because they are willing to serve on your board. It's important, therefore, to screen for character during the board member recruitment process. Yet how many boards do? Asking sitting board members to assess character in the recruitment process may feel like too much of a hassle, or they may be embarrassed to check up on someone they know socially or through business. Nevertheless, it is a critical step in the process. When done well, investigating character won't upset a prospective member; instead, it communicates that serving on your board is serious business.

Principle #3: Competence. It is vital for a sitting board to genuinely examine the board member competencies it may be lacking and needs in order to become a highly effective board. There is a significant difference between competence and credentials. A credential is a certification of sorts for which an individual has successfully completed training or course work. The value of that credential is dependent on the credentialing agency, its reputation, and the rigor of the course work. But a credential on its own is not a guarantee  of competence. By contrast, competence is the mastery of knowledge and/or a skill that enables one to consistently deliver high-quality results. Competence is assessed by an individual's performance and success in the field in which he or she endeavors.

Principle #4: Connections. Being connected to your constituency is fundamental to a nonprofit's ability to achieve its mission. When organizations fail to achieve the levels of support they need to thrive, they often assume it's because they lack  visibility. The truth is, they need to develop a band of believers among a cross-section of constituencies. To thrive, nonprofits need to have healthy relationships with at least four types of constituencies: those served by the organization, those who are influential within the community, well-heeled philanthropists, and those who possess unique skills or insights that can fuel an organization's success.

Principle #5: Composition. Building strong boards that comprise the character, competence, connections, and diversity that organizations need to thrive is not a complicated process. The approach is straightforward, but it takes time and discipline to do it right. To truly represent the communities nonprofits serve, they must have individuals on the board that carry the perspectives and concerns of people who live in those communities. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are essential concerns for nonprofits—and governing boards are the trustees.   Even beyond the obligation to have representative governance, research shows that boards are more effective when diversity and inclusion are integrated with competence and character.

Principle #6: Continuity. Knowledge of how a nonprofit is organized, functions, and performs over time is critical to sound governance and decision-making. In a nonprofit organization, staff are the fuel that make things go. They are the source of the passion (competence and commitment) and reputation (authority and action) all organizations need to function effectively. And they power every critical function of the organization, from program management to fundraising to administration.  So it's imperative that members of the governing board know how the organization is wired, and they have a special responsibility to ensure it continues to run, and run well, over time. While steering clear of meddling in day-to-day management of the organization, board members must understand how staff are deployed, how things work, and which policies guide them.

Principle #7: Collaboration. Collaboration is the mindset that enables people to work together cooperatively to advance a cause. A collaborative mindset also creates places where ideas can be shared and explored safely and environments that are conducive to respectful inquiry. It is a kind of give-and-take attitude grounded in trust and the pursuit of mutually satisfying goals. But true collaboration is difficult to achieve. Creating a truly collaborative mindset requires a constant, concrete commitment to the cause the nonprofit serves. And that commitment needs to resonate in the hearts and minds of the organization's leaders if they hope to overcome the hurdles and pain points that so often scuttle its realization.

Have a board member recruiting tip of your own? Feel free to share it in the comments section below.

Heashot_James Mueller

James Mueller is president of James Mueller & Associates and author of the new book Onboarding Champions: The Seven Recruiting Principles of Highly Effective Nonprofit Boards.

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