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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Surprising Barriers to Board Recruitment
By Gayle Gifford

A few months ago, intrigued by the hosting site, I signed up for my Chamber of Commerce’s “Business After Hours” monthly networking gathering.

Anticipating the usual questions about what I did, I decided to ask the inquirer a question of my own rather than launching into my short promo.

The exchange went like this:

Chamber member: So, tell me, what is Cause & Effect?

Me: Before I answer, I’ll ask you a question. Have you ever served on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization?

My intent was to engage the member, most likely a businessperson or manager from state or local government, in a short conversation about their nonprofit experience as a way of leading up to the services I offer.

of related interest OF RELATED INTEREST: In How Are We Doing?, Gayle Gifford pioneers an elegantly simple way for your board to evaluate and improve its overall performance. It all comes down to answering a number of straightforward questions.

Wasn’t I surprised when, after posing my opening question -- have you ever served on the board of a nonprofit organization, virtually everyone I asked said, “NO.”

Not the answer I was expecting. I thought that in this group of up-and -comers and avid networkers that serving on a nonprofit board would be de rigueur. Was I wrong!

How could this be? Maybe these Chamber members were so tied up with their work and family commitments they just didn’t have the time for any community service?

Wrong again. Upon further probing, many of the “No” sayers had volunteered at a nonprofit or contributed pro bono services.

So why not board service? I believe I got my answer from a response that was tossed back to me:

Chamber member: “What exactly does a board do and why would I want to be on it?”

Wow. I had assumed that most business leaders would know what a board is and what it does. I anticipated that my first question would lead to a discussion about all of the things they didn’t like about being on a board, thus setting the stage for a pitch for my services.

Instead, I found myself in the role of salesperson for nonprofit board service.

I decided, in the span of 60 seconds or less, to explain what a nonprofit board does. And to try to make it sound interesting.

I went with: Nonprofit boards make sure that their organizations make a real difference in the quality of life in their communities and see to it that those organizations are both worthy and trustworthy of community support. You be the judge.

Thankfully I didn’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty of typical board work (go to meetings, read reports, get into long discussions...) or I’m sure I would have sent them running for cover. 

Why is it so hard to recruit board members?

Shortly after this encounter, I came upon the following statistic:

Ninety percent of nonprofits find it ‘somewhat difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to find qualified board members

That number comes from research released this summer by the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy of The Urban Institute. Titled Nonprofit Governance in the United States, Findings on Performance and Accountability from the first National Representative Study, the report analyzes feedback from the chief executive officers/executive directors of over 5,100 US nonprofits of various sizes.

 (The report provides many other interesting insights on board performance. You can read a copy online at http://www.urban.org/publications/411479.html).

The report’s author, Francie Ostrower, went on to say:

 “Additional research is needed to better understand the barriers to obtaining board members ...

This recruitment issue is not likely to go away anytime soon because the nonprofit sector continues to grow.”

Let me go out on a limb here and offer a few ideas about those barriers based on my own anecdotal experience in the nonprofit sector.

• In a quick troll through Google, I found multiple references to employers complaining about the hard time they have finding qualified employees. So, if paychecks aren’t inducement enough, how about recruiting for a job that has long hours, high responsibility and no pay!

• It takes months, sometimes even years, to identify, cultivate and qualify individuals with the skills, knowledge and commitment that you want on your board. So why do so many boards wait until the last minute to look for board members?

• How is it that those Chamber members were never reached, even within the organizations where they were volunteering? Maybe we keep going to the usual suspects and then complaining that the same people serve on too many boards. In addition, that same Urban Institute report noted that boards are overwhelmingly made up of non-Hispanic whites and individual between the ages of 35 to 65.

• “Word of mouth” isn’t working for us on the rewards of board service, mainly because so many board members don’t experience them. Too often meetings are boring and unproductive. Our training is insufficient or non-existent so people aren’t really sure what they should be doing – especially for those individuals who have never served on a board before.

• Board jobs are complex, confusing, we expect too much of too few directors and provide little support. I don’t know about you, but I’m now serving as chair of a board where I estimate that I’ve been volunteering, on average, close to 8 hours a week over the last six months. And that’s entirely on board work. Granted, we’ve been in a search for a new executive director, I have lots of flexibility in my job and my kids are pretty self-sufficient, but how many individuals can give even a fraction of that kind of service? You know what else ... that board only meets quarterly!

As a sector, we haven’t done the best job making the case for board service – especially when most people only hear about boards when there is a local scandal or government investigation. The survey’s author even put out a call to the sector and its supporters: “sound practices and policies must be coupled with investment in people, by helping nonprofits obtain individuals willing and able to serve...” (Emphasis added)

It’s unlikely that it will ever be “easy” to recruit qualified board members – and it probably shouldn’t be. Every organization needs to take its time to find and train qualified, passionate people who care about the mission and have the knowledge and skills needed at any given time. But it certainly would be nice to have a large pool of eager and ready recruits from which to choose, wouldn’t it?

P.S. If you are in the 10 percent that isn’t having a difficult time recruiting board members, I’d love to hear from you. Tell me what you do so that I can share it with our readers in a later column.

Gayle Gifford is the author of How Are We Doing, by Emerson & Church, Publishers. In addition to her provocative writing and speaking, she is a college lecturer and president of Cause and Effect Inc. (www.ceffect.com), a consulting firm based in Providence, RI that helps a wide range of nonprofits build their strategic capacity. You can reach her at 401.331.2272 or gayle@ceffect.com.

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