Serving on the board of directors is the highest office one can hold in the nonprofit sector. Yet, when it comes to nonprofit board recruitment, many times insufficient attention is paid to the qualifications required to fulfill the fiduciary obligations that are the heart and soul of the job.
It’s not like one size fits all. The old axiom about boards is true: when you’ve seen one board… you’ve seen one board. Every board has its own set of dynamics that are reflective of its history, culture, purpose, geographic locale, and personalities. Even so, the fiduciary obligations remain the same across every organization.
I have served on and worked with many boards over the course of my career. Simply put, great boards do great things, and mediocre boards do mediocre things. That is why it is so important to make sure that the right people are in the seats around the boardroom table. Once someone is sitting in that chair in the boardroom, the course has been set for that person’s term of service. That is why recruitment is the most fundamental and critical factor in determining board success.
Over the years I’ve developed an approach to board member recruitment that considers four factors: culture, character, competency, and connections. By consciously managing these four aspects of board recruitment, you can create and sustain a high-performing board.
Today, most researchers of organizational culture agree that shared values are a key element in the definition of culture (Weiner, 1988). Several decades ago, Robert Hartman, a respected scholar in the field of axiology, demonstrated the direct link between our values and how we think and act.
So, if we understand the core values, make them explicit, and attend to them, we can create and sustain a productive culture in the boardroom. A few years ago when BoardSource surveyed board chairs for its Twelve Principles of Governance that Power Exceptional Boards, they concluded: “mission, vision, and core values are of crucial importance in all deliberations.”
So, what are core values? Sometimes we confuse them with principles of behavior, like the Boy Scouts oath. But, they are deeper than that. Core values capture beliefs about what is good and right—the ones that compel us to do great work. You might even say that core values call nonprofits into existence—because the founders felt an obligation to create an organization that would address the gap between “what is” and “what should be.”
Every board should take time to identify its organization’s core values. And when they are done, the values should be posted around the boardroom at every board meeting. By understanding and attending to an organization’s core values, boards foster the right culture in the boardroom.
We see a person’s character reflected in their actions in the world—and we usually judge them… as good or bad, caring or uncaring, thoughtful or thoughtless. How board members conduct themselves will ultimately reflect back upon the organization—from public perception of the organization to the reputation of the board itself… and its ability to recruit new members.
How members treat one another in the boardroom is crucial to creating the right atmosphere for productive discussion and decision-making. Members need to respect and trust one another, demonstrate integrity, and act maturely and responsibly. They should exude a passion for the organization’s cause, value service above self, and work collaboratively to fulfill the fiduciary duty of care.
Competence is the ability to consistently deliver expected results with a high degree of quality. Oftentimes, when assessing its governance competence, boards will simply look at gaps in skills and professional experience, but competence is more than that.
One of the most important board competencies is the ability to deliberate effectively. Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London suggests that we need to consider CQ (curiosity quotient) in addition to IQ and EQ. In balancing a board’s deliberative ability, I believe a board should look for all three.
- IQ is basic brainpower, the capacity to handle “high cognitive load” and retain information. These are the people that can hold many divergent bits of information in their minds, see solutions, and provide sound rationales.
- EQ refers to a person’s emotional aptitude, the ability to perceive, control, and express emotions. High EQ people are adaptable and able to navigate stressful, complex, and uncertain environments. These individuals have a tendency toward entrepreneurism and innovation.
- The CQ folks are characterized by hungry minds; they are inquisitive, counter-conformist, tolerant of ambiguity, and tend to be nuanced, subtle thinkers that produce simple solutions for complex problems.
By constructing a thoughtful board interview process, one can gain insight into how an individual processes information and makes decisions—and use it to select a balanced portfolio of candidates.
In addition to recruiting for thinking types, it’s important to consider other factors, such as sound judgment, listening ability, as well as professional experience, and business acumen I mentioned above. And finally, there is subject matter expertise. You may need board members with special knowledge and expertise related to your mission and programs.
When discussing connections, the conversation has to be larger than “who do you know.” It must be a conversation about people one knows who are able and willing to connect the organization to an expanded circle of influence. In terms of fiduciary responsibilities, the expanded circle of influence means connecting to those you serve, those who are influential, those who are affluent, and those who can help your organization better succeed at its mission and serve its community. This is a balancing act. It takes time and effort—but it is achievable.
I was at a board meeting recently where board members were asked to identify people who might be interested in the organization and its cause. My immediate response was, gee, I don’t think I know anyone. But, I took out my contacts list anyway and reviewed the names. I found eight people that might have an interest in the organization—and passed those names along. I have found this to be a consistent experience over the years—we know more people and have more connections than we think we have. I’ve concluded that rather than six degrees of separation; it’s more like two.
A Word About Diversity
Recent research shows that boards are not getting more diverse. In our nation, we have reached a critical moment. We seem to be retreating into distrusting camps of personal opinion as we paint each other with broad strokes of inaccurate judgments. Misunderstanding abounds.
Nonprofits have an opportunity to bring enlightenment by creating environments, especially on our boards, that embrace diversity. There is, nevertheless, a dangerous pitfall that we must avoid: tokenism. Tokenism is recruiting someone because of a personal attribute—ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic status, etc.—rather than because that person is capable of serving.
The way to avoid this mistake is to develop your character-competence-connection profile first; then seek out candidates who also satisfy the criteria for diversity. It is important that all board members are recruited for the contribution they can make to your cause—and through paying attention to diversity you can further enrich your culture.
4 C’s Recruitment Strategy
Once you know what you are looking for it is much easier to find. That may seem simplistic, but many times I have heard board members say they can’t find qualified candidates. When I ask them to describe the qualifications, they tend to be vague and uncertain. The point I am making is this: when you know clearly what you are seeking in candidates, it is foremost in your mind when you are talking to people—and you will recognize potential candidates in many different settings because you are alert to the characteristics you are seeking. To put it another way, when you know who you are looking for, those people tend to show up because you are able to see them.
When you build your board profile, list two categories under each “C”: one that lists the characteristics that “all must possess” and one that lists characteristics that “some must possess.” The first category is non-negotiable, the second capture attributes that not all candidates possess, but some must.
I strongly urge boards to create a recruitment task group, possibly a subgroup of the board development committee to focus on recruitment year-round. The most important tasks include:
- Review and revise the recruitment profile annually
- Engage the whole board in identifying candidates
- Develop a description of board member duties and expectations
- Send candidates information packets and have them complete an application
- Interview all viable candidates
- Interview candidate’s references
Finally, treat each person as though s/he is about to fill the highest office in the organization.
As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital.