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Does Size Matter when it Comes to Your Board Development Plan?

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From sports to engineering to romance, this question gets raised a lot: Does size really matter? When it comes to plans for recruiting and engaging a nonprofit board of directors, the answer varies.

If a nonprofit has steady sources of funding such as fees, endowment, and/or government grants, its board’s chief responsibility will be oversight. Thus, it can have a smaller number of members. (Think of hospital and university boards.)

But if most of a nonprofit’s funding comes from private sector donations, a bigger board comes in handy. More people on the board means a wider network from which to cultivate and engage donors. (Think of Boys & Girls Clubs and Boy Scout councils.)

Setting aside the question of board size, I routinely get asked how BIG should a written board recruitment plan (aka Board Development Plan) be? And does it correlate with how big you want your board to be?

Of course, the answer is — it depends. (Typical consultant answer LOL)

For example, a number of years ago, I worked in New Mexico with a small nonprofit board of approximately six people. They desperately needed to increase the size of their board and reduce their high turnover rate. 

The success of their revenue model depended heavily on private sector philanthropy, and they needed more people around the table to get the job done. We ended up producing a 61-page board development plan chock full of goals, strategies, tactics and tools. 

More recently, I was working with a small nonprofit board of approximately eight people in the western suburbs of Chicago. Their board model was different and relied on church partners appointing a liaison to serve on the organizations’ board.

With an organizational vision rooted in expansion, they needed to start raising more money from the community. This meant more board members in addition to more engagement from existing board members. Here we ended up producing a one-page board development plan and a very large board development/board governance operations manual.

What influenced the size of these two organizations’ board development plans? 

Simply stated, it was the people sitting around the planning table.

My New Mexico client filled the room with volunteers I’d characterize as “planning-minded” individuals (aka planners). My client west of Chicago had a room full of “action-oriented” individuals (aka doers). 

As you can imagine, the “doers” wanted to hit the ground running. They demanded a board development plan that was short, sweet and focused simply on goals and strategies, with a built in scorecard for easy monitoring. 

The “planners” preferred a more studied approach and a detailed document with action plans and lots of tools included.

A not-too-long, not-too-short Goldilocks plan might come about by having a diverse group with a healthy mix of “doers” and “planners” working on the document.

Regardless, as long as you are using your planning process to engage people in answering the who, what, where, when and why of your organization’s board development and board governance, you need not worry about the size and design of the document. It’s really all about the means and not the ends in this situation.

Let’s talk a little bit about the elements of a good board development plan.

Whatever the ultimate approach, any board recruitment planning document can be thought of as a cake. The top layers would be loftier and center on the big picture vision and goals the organization has for itself and its board. 

Next would be the recruitment strategy, the details making up the process for identifying and recruiting board members.

Those three layers are necessary for any planning cake.

Next would come action planning tables, which provide a timeline for who is doing what by when in implementing the recruitment plan.

Organizations like the one in New Mexico baked their cake bigger by including multiple appendices. These appendices served as their board recruitment toolbox and supported implementation of their plan.

The following is just a sampling of what they included in the appendices: 

  • Boardroom gap assessment (inventories traits, skills, backgrounds, demographics, etc. needed to address gaps in the boardroom)
  • Volunteer job descriptions (spells out the roles and responsibilities required for various positions such as board members, board leadership, committee members, etc. who are being recruited by the board development committee)
  • Prospect profile template (a place to capture details such as contact info, traits, skills, social network, past experiences, etc. about prospects as the committee learns more about them throughout the cultivation process)
  • Prospect rating tool (a tool that allows the committee to rank which prospects are the best ones to help fill your boardroom gaps and provides a roadmap for targeting the committee’s recruitment efforts) 
  • Recruitment info packet (this packet contains critical info such as a strategic plan, annual report, impact report, audited financials, board member agreement, etc. to help those being asked to serve if what you’re asking of them is a good fit)
  • Board scorecard (this simple one-page tool spells out your key performance indicators relative to board development, governance and engagement and allows users to see how the organization is actually performing compared to the goals set out in the plan)

If tools aren’t your “thing” and you’re more like my former suburban Chicago client, let’s spend a moment talking about the meat and potatoes of the board development plan. 

While there is no right or wrong about what the plan’s guts look like, the following is a list of questions that many of my clients have tried to turn into goals statements and strategies:

  • How many additional board members do we need to recruit? And by when?
  • What is the optimal size board we want to maintain?
  • Are we designing an annual process (e.g. nominating committee approach) or an ongoing recruitment process (e.g. year-round board development committee)?
  • How do we identify the right people for our board and the organization’s needs?
  • How do we introduce prospects to what being a productive and engaged board member looks like and walk them through a process through which they arrive at a decision that is good for both them and us?
  • Once someone agrees to join the board, what do effective onboarding and orientation efforts look like? How can a new board member be supported to help them hit the ground running?

Honestly, this list can get much longer, but let’s stop here.

For further information on putting together a board development plan, I recommend two great sources of information – BoardSource and one of my favorite board development consultants:

Finally, remember it’s not the size of the board or the recruiting plan that matters. It’s what gets accomplished that really counts. I hope this post helps you get to that point.

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