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Recruitment Mistakes.jpg

by Karen Eber Davis

Inviting people to lead your #nonprofitboard is filled with promises and risks. You can maximize the odds of reaching your high board aspirations by avoiding these common mistakes.

1. Panic Recruiting

We know relationships take time, yet we recruit at the last minute. The mistake here is waiting until your deadline for finding board members is less than 60 days, which allows for too little vetting. Unknowns increase risks.

Getting It Right: Practice ongoing board recruitment for peace of mind. After all, you may need a new board member at any time. Last month, I joined a board, replacing a member who resigned before the second meeting.

2. Recruiting for the Organization You Have, Instead of the One Your Building

Healthy nonprofits move in an upward cycle through these three repeating phases.

  • Build: New #nonprofits and those planning new efforts

  • Grow: Organizations executing their building efforts  

  • Refine: Entities solidifying growth, repairing problems, and preparing to grow again


Each stage requires different leadership skills. For example, the growth phase usually involves raising contributions. Here, it would be best to have people willing to make big asks and make or support connections with funders of all types.

As you identify prospects, consider if you’re entering a new phase. What leadership skills will you need for it?  

3. Giving Up Too Soon on Engaging Current Leaders in Recruitment

At meetings, you ask, “Whom do you know who might make a good board member?

And silence the room.

After all, you asked your board members to help solve your nonprofit’s board recruitment problem, which didn’t work. As a result, you focus on whom you know.

Yet, your leaders know candidates. When you seek candidates, flip recruitment into an opportunity instead of a problem. Discuss what’s working when it comes to your board. Ask what would make it better. Then, explore whom you might invite to join you and even whom you’d be remiss not to invite.

Will this make your board immediately spew names? Probably not. However, it will shift the conversation from problem to opportunity. This chat will give you some ideas about prospects and get the board to think about people they know.

4. Equating Loud with Servant Leadership

Many people mistake people with big egos who hang around nonprofits as servant leaders. They invite them to be board members, only to really regret the invitation.

Why does this mistake get made? We mistake critics for servant leaders. Some critics are, and others are not. How can you tell? Servant leaders use their influence and power for your good vs. personal gain.  

Think about how individual candidates interact with you and others. Afterward, consider how you and others feel. Are you energized or drained? Prefer candidates who bring you and others new energy. More of them use their gifts to uplift people and your work.

5. Prevaricating when Asking

You invest much effort in identifying and vet candidates. So, when you invite people, you’re committed to getting a yes. Consequently, you (or others) tell candidates you expect little from the #boardofdirectors.

The danger of asking for little is that little is what you get.

Seek feedback from your members on how much time and resources board members invest. Ask about the benefits of being a board member. Then, give examples of both to candidates.

6. Failing to Make Sure the CEO Has a Voice

The CEO’s boss is the board. The wise nominating committee recognizes that the CEO needs a voice, if not a veto, on candidates. Of course, the mistake is not asking or, if you are the CEO, not being forthcoming about doubts.

As you review candidates, ask your executive for their preferences. CEOs, it’s a service to your organization to voice your support or withhold it.

7. Obsessing About a Matrix

Matrices are analysis tools that allow you to assess and review board members’ characteristics (such as a parent), experiences (lives on the west side), and skills (accountant.) You can follow this link for more on board recruitment matrices. (It’s a signup bonus with the CEO Solutions newsletter.) Some nonprofits focus heavily on checking matrix boxes. This makes your matrix the boss.

Instead, use your matrix to avoid recruiting more of the same and to explore needed skills, experiences, and characteristics–that is, a tool.

I recommend that you use your matrix three times as you recruit new board members:

  1. As you consider potential candidates

  2. When you have a candidate list to prioritize prospects

  3. After you fill your board. Review the matrix with an eye toward whom to recruit next

The Bottom Line

Creating your board is an invitation to think big picture and build a group of people to lead your nonprofit onward and upward. Review these board recruitment errors. Which ones will you remove from your current recruitment process?

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