A New Approach to Recruiting Board Members that Paid Off

When Real Change first asked us if they could hire us to bring on a new group of board members, we told them it doesn’t work like that. “The board recruits their peers,” we said. “Nobody hires a search consultant to go out and find board members the way you would for an Executive Director.” But then we started wondering. . . could you do that? Could we take what we’ve learned about doing a careful and intentional executive search for a non-profit organization and apply it to board leadership? We decided to take a chance on that experiment, and Real Change took a chance on us. What follows is a case study of what happened when we tried a new way of bringing on a large cohort of new board members, including – spoiler alert!—why we think it ended up being a huge success.

The Set Up

Many people know at least a little about Real Change: they “exist to provide opportunity and a voice for low-income and homeless people, while taking action for economic justice.” Although Real Change is a seasoned and strategic organization with strong leadership and good “name recognition” due to the street newspaper they produce and sell, a series of challenges and some bad luck meant their board had dwindled to only 8. “We had a self-esteem problem when it came to our board,” said their Managing Director at the time. “We were convinced that no one with all the skills and experience we needed would want to join us.” A stuck board can feel like a chicken and egg problem: you want dynamic people to revitalize it, but why would those people want to join a stuck board? The Real Change board decided to tackle that problem head on. They set the goal of adding 7 experienced and diverse new board members to bring their board to 15 people.

The Process

Step 1: Board Assessment and Visioning

We started by interviewing all board members and making an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the board, and talking together about what needed to change. We challenged the board to describe in detail what their ideal team would look like and what it would accomplish, and we kept that dream vision in front of us throughout the process.

While a few board members began working on our Search Committee, the Executive Committee took responsibility for making other necessary adjustments so that the new board members would come into a healthier environment when they were eventually brought on.

Step 2: Defining the Opportunity

Together with the Search Committee, we used the assessment results to determine the most important skills and qualities we wanted to see in board candidates, as well as exactly what we were asking all board members to do. We also articulated what we could offer board members and why they might want to get engaged. From this we created a Board Opportunity Document – NOT a board job description, but rather an attractive announcement of an exciting opportunity all designed to say: this deserves your attention!

Step 3: Spreading the Word

Once we had the Opportunity document it was easy to circulate it just as you would any job announcement: we used social media, listservs, and personal networks to get the word out (note that we did not use the Real Change paper itself). We spent time at a board meeting brainstorming a list of “fantasy candidates” of highly connected and experienced people, and then assigned board members who knew them to reach out and ask if they would consider the opportunity and/or just circulate it to friends. We set up an email alias and responded to inquiries with additional information including a

detailed board job description and written application with a firm deadline. We also offered “get to know us” coffees and tours for candidates who might be new to the organization. When colleagues began to tell us they’d received the Opportunity document from multiple sources, we knew we’d been successful at getting the word out.

Step 4: Screening and Selection

We ended up with almost two dozen inquiries, 12 of whom ultimately submitted an application and were interviewed by members of the search committee. Search committee members also checked references and used a screening tool we created to help compare the strengths of the candidates that we had identified in the opportunity document as being the most important to us. When all this work was done they came together to make decisions about the final slate they would nominate to serve on the board.

The Results

In the end, the hardest part was realizing that we didn't have room to take everyone! The Real Change board voted to bring on an impressive and diverse slate of 7 new members, each with exceptional skills and insight to offer: almost all had significant board experience, four were people of color, and two were Real Change vendors. After being selected as board members, the new group was oriented at a retreat with the existing board.

Additionally, a few of the applicants not chosen this round ended up volunteering in other ways with the organization, and are thus “in the pipeline” as positions open up in the future.

Finally, since Real Change has established the tools and a process for bringing on a great group this cycle, the board is well-trained to do it again by themselves next cycle, and beyond.

What we Learned (and what we’re still learning!)

You know more people than you think you do: In a way, what we said at the beginning turned out to be true: you DO need board and staff members to go out and recruit their peers for the board. At the end of the day, only 1 out of 12 candidates came from our own “recruiter” networks; the other applicants all had some prior connection to the organization. As it turned out, Real Change knew the people they wanted to be working with all along! They just hadn’t put all the pieces in place to make it happen.

Demonstrating that you are serious by having a clear plan makes a difference: It’s one thing to mention to a buddy, “Please join our board, we desperately need people!” It’s entirely another thing to hand someone a well thought out opportunity, complete with benefits, requirements, and deadlines, and ask them to consider helping you change the world. Taking the time to put a process in place will say a lot to your candidates about how serious you are, and what kind of a professional organization they would be joining: no one really wants to join a board that feels disorganized and desperate!

The group is the way to go: We can’t say enough about the importance of bringing on new board members just once a year as a cohort or class. This gives your team the opportunity to determine your most important needs for that particular year, to consider candidates as a pool, and most important, to orient the whole group together so everyone hits the ground running and no one feels like the only “new guy”. When you are in that “low self-esteem” place of feeling like no one will want to join your board, it can be natural to want to snap up new board members and vote them in the minute they express any interest. Resist! Because in reality, a thoughtful recruiting and orientation process will get you the board members you most need who will stay the course. And besides, playing a little “hard to get”can be a draw for candidates – you can always get them volunteering in other ways while you wait for your annual board entry period to roll around again.

Bringing them on is only the beginning: We don’t know if this board will turn out to be the “dream team” we envisioned at the beginning – or maybe we do know, because it’s not realistic to think any group will ever operate perfectly. But what we are sure of is that regardless of how great the individuals we brought on are, they won’t be successful without engaged leadership from the staff and existing board, lots of help getting “up to speed”, and a sincere effort by everyone on the board to build the team,which will take some time. Voting people on is where the real work starts, not the end of the process.

In Conclusion: Prioritize Your Search!

Of course it was helpful to Real Change to have consultant support to shepherd this process, and creating the documents and tools, laying out the process, and making sure that deadlines are being met all took significant amounts of time. But in truth, we as consultants didn’t do anything that a committed board member, perhaps with a little HR experience, could not have done. In fact, the most time consuming part of the process, namely interviewing and checking references for a dozen applicants, was done entirely by the Search Committee. You could bring on new board members without investing in a consultant, but you couldn’t do it without making it a high priority and investing a big chunk of your board’s time, just as you would in an Executive Search. The board had to go “all in” with us in this process: committing to meetings and deadlines, reaching out to well-connected friends, following up with candidates in a timely and professional way. Maybe Real Change took it more seriously because they had invested money as well as time, and that was part of the reason for their success. We think they were successful because everyone on the staff and board bought into the idea that they could not meet their potential as an organization without a strong and effective board – and they were willing to do what it takes to make that happen. We are excited to watch them thrive!