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From Novice To Champion: Empowering Board Members

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Few things are more critical to your nonprofit’s success than your board of directors. A strong and effective board can help provide strategic direction, keep your finances in check, and uphold a high standard of governance. Your best board members are like a treasure trove of expertise—guiding decision-making, fueling innovation, and opening doors to resources and networks that would otherwise remain out of reach. They’re also your biggest cheerleaders, advocating for your cause and spreading the word within the community.

Conversely, a toxic, dysfunctional, or low-performing board can destroy your nonprofit. So, building a thriving, successful board of directors is one of the most challenging things an Executive Director (ED) must do.

So, where do you find great board members? How do you recruit board members and onboard them to be high performers who give generously of their time, treasure, and talents?

To successfully manage your board, you need to do three things:

  • Determine exactly what you expect of them from the beginning.
  • Empower them by giving them the training, tools, and inspiration to lead effectively.
  • Appreciate them and make sure they know they’re making an impact.

10 places to recruit board members

  1. Your volunteer pool. Your volunteers already show commitment and understand your mission.
  2. Your donor pool. Your donors are already invested in your success and may want to be more involved as board members.
  3. Referrals from staff, current donors, volunteers, and current or former board members. These referrals come from trusted sources who understand the culture and know what the organization needs to thrive.
  4. Social media, especially LinkedIn. You can leverage trusted board members and donor networks to find great candidates who share your organization’s values.
  5. Volunteer fairs and websites like Volunteer Match, Idealist, and BoardAssist. These platforms attract people passionate about making a difference.
  6. Board match programs in your community that your local community foundation or United Way may offer. These programs can connect you with potential board members already engaged in philanthropy and community building.
  7. Review board lists for organizations with shared values. Partnering with like-minded missions or values can lead to finding board members equally committed to your cause.
  8. Local Chamber of Commerce or local leadership group, for example, “Leadership Nashville” or “Leadership Austin.” These groups attract community leaders looking to drive positive change.
  9. Young Nonprofit Professionals groups. Engaging with up-and-coming leaders can bring fresh perspectives and energy to your board.
  10. Advertising in your newsletter or website. Use your existing channels to reach people already connected to your cause.

How do you know if they’re a good fit?

Unless you’ve worked with an individual as a volunteer, you won’t have any way to know, so try before you buy by inviting them to volunteer or serve on a committee. It could be a short-term ad hoc committee or a standing committee. Either way, you and your prospective board member get to “kick the tires” to see if it’s a good fit before making an appointment.

There are lots of meaningful ways for folks to leverage their engagement, support your organization, and attract more donors without occupying a board seat. One option is to create a “Leadership Council” or circle of friends where members commit to raising an annual gift amount and to bringing a certain number of individuals into the organization every year—say, 10 to 25—to experience its events or programs.

10 key questions to ask a prospective board member

  1. What makes our mission meaningful to you?
  2. What are some of your prior board leadership experiences?
  3. What skills, connections, resources, and expertise are you willing to use on behalf of the organization?
  4. Do you have any worries or concerns about joining the board?
  5. Do you have personal aspirations that could be enhanced by board service?
  6. How much time a month can you commit to meetings and serving the mission?
  7. What motivates you?
  8. What expectations did you have of the nonprofits where you previously served as a board member?
  9. While you’re on our board we ask to be one of your top three charitable commitments. How do you feel about that?
  10. How important is socially interacting with other members?

5 steps to onboarding new board members

Onboarding a new board member starts them off on the right foot with the proper expectations of board service and sets the tone for a successful tenure.

1. Give them a 1:1 orientation. Ideally, the board chair and the CEO or ED at the organization’s offices handle this onboarding, which should include a tour, meeting staff, and sitting down to review the board contract.

2. Match them with a board buddy. Not only does this help your new board member get up to speed faster and eliminate them feeling intimidated by being the new kid on the block, but it also satisfies one of many board members’ most common reasons for joining a board—socializing, and networking with their peers. Pair them with a high-performing board member to set the right expectations.

3. Provide them with a board handbook. A comprehensive board handbook is a great tool for educating your board about the organization and empowering them to serve.

Some core components should include:

  • Organizational information: case statement, current newsletter, staff roster, program overview, development plan, bylaws, budget
  • Board information: board contract, board roster, meeting schedule, current strategic plan, committee overview, chairs, and members
  • Meeting materials: schedule of meetings, agendas, and minutes

4. Host a welcome reception. If you have a new slate of board members joining at once, this is a great way to introduce them to the rest of the board, staff, donors, clients, and community leaders.

5. Announce it publicly. Send a press release announcing your new board members to your local newspaper and business journal and post on LinkedIn and social networks. These are simple, free tools to promote your organization and celebrate and welcome your new board members.

5 ways to make it fun and rewarding

  1. Give your board a hands-on experience of your work. Whether they’re doing a science experiment that summer campers might do at camp, serving the homeless a meal, or looking at cells under a microscope in the hospital, bring the front lines of your work.
  2. Share a client testimony or have staff describe a day on the frontlines. Hearing a personal story of how your organization made a difference fuels your board member’s passion for your cause and gives them their own toolkit of powerful stories from the frontlines to share on fundraising visits.
  3. Have a board member describe the mission and why it’s meaningful to them. This reconnects your board members with why they are serving and fuels everyone in the room.
  4. Make time for networking, fun, games, play, and strategic conversations. Do scavenger hunts to get to know each other. Ditch the yawn-inducing, mind-numbing formalities like Robert’s Rules of Order. Your board is not a parliament; it’s a group of volunteers giving you their time. Make time for strategic conversations. Discuss an interesting item you might explore at a board retreat. Try tackling one each meeting or every other meeting—group board members in pairs or teams to tackle problems and reconvene to report findings and share ideas.
  5. Start meetings with a fun icebreaker. One of the main reasons people volunteer to serve is to network with other influential board members and build key relationships with them. Allow time for social interaction and networking. List board members’ hobbies on your board roster. Celebrate milestones in their life. Make your board meetings fun and your board members will look forward to participating!

Rate yourself: How well do you support your board members?

How would you rate yourself at…                                                             Rarely  Sometimes  Often

  1. Tapping into their motivational drives
  2. Giving them regular feedback
  3. Delivering rewards and recognition
  4. Offering special privileges or incentives
  5. Providing training
  6. Sharing public affirmations
  7. Having fun with them
  8. Thanking their families
  9. Sharing positive gossip (bragging to peers)
  10. Being available to them

I hope you’ll use this guide to build a board as committed and passionate as the mission it serves.

Remember, empowering, appreciating, and integrating these leaders into your organization is not about filling seats but about building a visionary, strategic, and supportive board to propel your mission forward.

By thoughtfully engaging with each prospective board member, giving them the tools and support they need, and celebrating their successes, you’ll ensure that your board isn’t just functional—it’s phenomenal!

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