2. Recruiting on your terms
Here's Bethany, the ED of her nonprofit, in a conversation that turned out to be a lot shorter than she expected...
Bethany: Hi, Mr. Smith. I'd like to talk with you about joining our Board.
Mr. Smith: I'd be glad to be on your Board. I'd be honored. Thanks for asking. When do I start?
Bethany: Uh, uh...uh-oh.
If Bethany knows for sure she wants Mr. Smith on her Board, then there's no problem.
But what if she doesn't know that? What if she was hoping to use this hour to check him out?
She could say...
"Oh, I wasn't inviting you yet."
"Not so fast, Buster, we have to vet you first."
But talk about awkward. Most EDs would accept the fait accompli because they don't want to hurt the person's feelings. And it might turn out okay. Mr. Smith might be a great guy.
But what if he's not? What if he's a bully? Then Bethany's just locked herself into a discouraging three-year grind. Instead of getting help, she's just added more trouble into her life. And it might be serious trouble.
Here's how Bethany did this conversation the next time...
Bethany: Hi, Mr. Jones. Our organization is going to be bringing on some new Board members this Spring.
But we're not issuing invitations yet. We're talking with people to see who might be interested, then the Board will meet and decide who to invite. There's a special balance of strengths and diversity and experience we need to have on our Board to carry out our mission well.
Would you be willing to talk with me about our organization and our Board on this basis?
This time Bethany is making an upfront contract for the conversation. She's taking control and setting clear boundaries. She's keeping the right for herself and her Board to decide if they want Mr. Jones or not.
Let's say she and Mr. Jones talk for an hour and she finds out he's rude, judgmental, and not especially interested in the mission, but would be very happy to join the Board for ego reasons.
She can simply thank him for his time and tell him the Board will let him know their decision in a few weeks. So there's no way he'll be able to commandeer himself a seat.
Does making this kind of upfront contract feel weird? It might, because you're essentially telling the person that if they step into this conversation...
You're auditioning them.
Different people will have different responses, like...
"I find that kind of insulting. No, I don't want to have this conversation with you."
"That works for me. It seems like a smart way to make sure you get the people you need. And I really don't know if I'd be interested until we talk this through. I consider being on a Board a big commitment so I don't do it lightly."
What do those different responses tell you about the person? We don't want to read too much into the first response, but I sure do like the second one. Here's someone who understands that a nonprofit has a mission that it's accountable to. And someone who treats Board service with the thoughtfulness it's due.
And what does it say about your organization when you use an upfront contract? I think it says...
We take our work seriously.
We're not begging for Board members.
It's something special to be on our Board.
These are the kind of messages that appeal to highly-effective people. Lots of great people automatically turn down Board invitations, they say no reflexively, because they think most nonprofit Boards are dysfunctional and a waste of their time.
So when you demonstrate that your Board is something special, that might just open a great person to the possibility of saying yes.
The leadership mindset
In a minute I'll be talking about a way to recruit Board members that I like even better than either of the options above.
But first I want to say something to EDs, because lots of EDs do the actual work of bringing in new Board members, and in many cases you're the best people to be doing this.
I'd urge you to take a look at your mindset as you go out to talk with prospective Board members...
Are you recruiting a boss, or
Are you recruiting a partner, a mentor, a champion?
In so much of our nonprofit culture, Board members are seen first and foremost as authority figures. So it's easy for EDs to slip into a submissive, employee mindset.
But I'd much rather that you...
Stay in your leadership stance.
I recommend thinking of yourself like this...
You're a full-on leader. You're standing in the mission discipline of your organization. You want to see if this Board candidate is eager to step inside that discipline with you, your staff, and the other Board members.
You want to see if this person is a kindred spirit before you'll issue an invitation.
If all you see is a person who wants to be the boss, you know that's not going to work, especially for a social change organization.
If you want to recruit champions you have to be a champion while you're recruiting. You need to be a leader, a colleague, an equal, not a deferential supplicant.
You know the old saying that the three most important things in real estate are: location, location, location.
Well, I'd say the three most important things in picking a new Board member are character, character, and character.
I'm thinking right now of Robert Fulghum's short essay, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Let's focus first on the basics. Instead of being wowed by someone's status or wealth, let's ask...
What kind of person is this?
Does he play well with others?
Does he support the people on his team?
Does he do what he says he's going to do?
Does he put his heart into the things that he does?
Does he understand what a mission is?
Another way of saying this is that you want to look at the personal operating system of the candidate, because that's what will determine if they fit into your Board culture more than anything else.
And I'm not talking about personality here. It doesn't matter if a person is a character, as long as he has character.
In all my years in the nonprofit sector, I've never heard one ED say..
I need more bosses!
But I have heard hundreds of them say...
I need more help!
And the best kind of help I can think of is what I call champions. Which means...
Someone who has a need to give you exactly what you need to receive.
And there's more...
They want to be on your team. They want to be part of the action. They want to take action. They want to bring in more kindred spirits. They want to bring in more money. They want to spread the word. They want to get you media attention. They want to be activists. They want to be organizers.
They have no tolerance for useless committees or flakiness.
And they don't put up with any kind of bullying, not for a minute.
They know how to take a stand for you and your mission. And they don't mind taking a stand. They like taking a stand. They feel great about it.
You don't have to massage their egos, you don't have to baby them, you don't have to fire them up.
They're self-motivating. They want to make a difference. They need to make a difference. That's what makes them happy.
Even a few champions can make all the difference in the world for a nonprofit. And they come in all different shapes and sizes, flavors and temperaments.
I first learned about discovery interviews as a way of finding new donors, but you can use them just as easily for checking out Board candidates.
Here's how it works. Athena is the ED of the local CAP Project for her town...
"Hi, Dr. Jerrold. I'm Athena, the executive director of the CAP Project. We're the program that goes into the schools to teach children how to get away from kidnappers and molesters and what to do if they're being abused at home.
"Our program has been very successful, but we think we could do a whole lot better at talking about what we do.
"We know you're someone who cares about this community and has supported lots of great organizations.
"I'm wondering if you'd be willing to meet with me for an hour so I could ask you how you would talk about CAP to people like yourself. I've got lots of questions for you.
"And I promise you that during this hour I won't ask you for money. Also I'll be watching the clock so I won't overstay my welcome.
"Now, please only say yes if this sounds interesting to you. If it doesn't or you just don't have the time, it's completely okay to tell me no."
If Dr. Jerrold says yes, then Athena gets to go talk with him in depth. She will get to see his reactions to CAP...
Does he get excited about the work? Does he get it? Does he have interesting ideas? Does he start talking about friends and colleagues who might be interested in talking with you, too?
How does he relate to you? Does he listen well? Does he ask you questions? Does he know how to have a real conversation with give and take?
Does he give you advice like he's giving you orders? Does he cut you off in the middle of your sentences? Does he make lots of judgmental remarks? Does he do put downs?
Now lets say Athena likes what she's hearing. She might decide to segue the conversation deftly into Board issues...
Athena: How much does it matter to you who's on the Board of an organization?
Dr. Jerrold: That's something I always look at. I never support an organization unless I know what the leadership is like and that includes the Board as well as the ED and top staff.Athena: What's been your best experience with Boards?
Dr. Jerrold: Oh, that's easy. When I was on the Board of the Senior Advocacy Project, we were focused. Every one of us brought a lot to the table and together we tripled the unrestricted funds of the organization. It was really fun to accomplish something like that in the company of such good people.
Wow. Now Athena is really liking what she's hearing. So she reports back to her Board and maybe they decide to pursue Dr. Jerrold, so Athena calls him...
Hi, Dr. Jerrold, this is Athena. I walked my Board through the conversation I had with you. They were quite taken with your point of view about our work and with your Board experience. A couple of them know you in passing from community activities and we were unanimous that you're exactly the kind of person we'd like to invite onto our Board.
"So I'm wondering if it would be okay for my Chair and I to meet with you to talk this through and see if there's a match here?
"I want you to know that we have a Board that's friendly and welcoming and has a lot of moxie. We're very focused in each and every meeting. We really get results.
"Do you have any questions for me? Would you like to set a date for a meeting? What works for you?"
In contrast, what if you hear something like this from someone you're interviewing...
"Oh, I've been on three Boards. I always think of myself as the devil's advocate. I try to pick holes in everything. Then I can see if what people are talking about stands the test. And I pick holes in people, too. I want to see if they can stand the heat."
Okaaaaay. That doesn't sound like a lot of fun. So now you're going to steer away from any further conversation about the Board, and you're probably going to want to bring the conversation to a close with a quick flourish and get out of there.
The discovery interview is a no-risk way to check someone out. It's a stealth audition. The other person doesn't know it's an audition, so there's no set up for rejection. Which I think is a kindness.
But please, if you do one of these interviews, really mean it. Have good, provocative questions to ask and get into them. This is not a gimmick.
You want to see how this person responds to you when you're being 100% authentic.
And you want him to see you at your best and most passionate, so if you decide later to invite him onto the Board, he's already impressed. He knows he's signing up to work with top quality people.
I have always found it easy to throw myself enthusiastically into these interviews, because I like meeting people and because I've always learned something that mattered from every interview, maybe only one thing, but I've never felt like I've wasted my time.
I also consider a discovery interview to be real work. On my page about hiring staff, I talk about the dangers of the conventional polite interview. Behavioral interviews are much, much better. But best is if there's some way you can do real work with the candidate.
Same with Board candidates. This is why some nonprofits have a committee structure where someone has to prove themselves first before they're invited onto the Board.
But the discovery interview is a chance to test someone, too. You're doing real problem solving together. How can this organization do better at talking about its work? You're fully invested in this conversation.
You get to see what this person is like in action when they're working on something that really matters, even if it's only for an hour. And an hour is way better than nothing.
Board development, it seems to me, is not primarily about templates, structures, or governance...
It's about matching needs.
If you don't want a sacrificial organization, then you can't recruit your Board members by asking them to serve sacrificially.
You want to find people who sincerely...
Need to make a difference,
For your mission,
With your team.
You want people...
Who need to give,
What you want to receive.
Why is meeting needs so fundamental? Because sacrificial service ultimately leads to resentment. And do you want resentful people on your Board? Especially since they can make your life hell if they want to.
When you recruit, you want to know for sure that this person is deeply in alignment with you and your mission. You want to see more than intellectual assent, you want to see that they have...
A compelling, explicit need to forward your mission.
And you want to know specifically what this candidate would want to do for you if he became a Board member, and what he would not want to do. Here's what can happen if you don't have that agreement upfront...
I met with the ED and Chair once and I think they kind of sweet talked me into joining the Board. Now all of a sudden there's this pressure to do stuff I didn't agree to.
I hate fundraising. I absolutely hate it. But that's what they expect of every Board member. I feel bad about not coming through for them. But I'm also kind of mad. This is not a match for me at all. I never would have said yes, if I had known this is what they wanted.
A mismatched Board member...
May never tell you what the real problem is. He may feel embarrassed, or resentful that you finessed him.
And he may remain silent because he doesn't want to hurt your feelings by telling you how upset he is.
You sense that something's wrong and you keep trying to fix it, but you can't because you don't know what he needs.
And so the relationship deteriorates. And someone who would have remained a big fan if he had never come on the Board, now has sour feelings about you and your organization. And he's one of the people in charge of it.
Here's another example, from my own personal collection of mistakes, to illustrate why you want to make explicit agreements...
I remember recruiting a guy, a good guy, a great guy, who lived in a very big house, I'd call it a mansion, in the most exclusive part of town. He was the sales director for the entire western region of his company, so he knew how to network and had lots of connections.
I assumed that he understood that we were recruiting him to help with fundraising. After his first Board meeting I said to him, "Now about your contacts..."
He replied, "Oh, no, I can't use my contacts for this!" He continued to be a great guy, but he was useless as a Board member.
Remember, it doesn't matter if you're already deep into a conversation with someone about being on the Board, if you discover they're not a match, you get to say no then and there.
As hard as that might be, the alternative is worse. How can you sincerely welcome someone onto your Board already knowing they're not a match?
I remember a time when I thought I was sure I was going to say yes but changed my mind midstream...
In the middle of our Board recruitment drive, one of the salespeople from one of our vendors said, "I'd like to talk with you about being on your Board." She was a bright, personable woman who loved our program, so I said, "Let's do lunch."
Over sandwiches she started telling me how she was going to take charge of our personnel policies and rewrite them. And then she was going to work her way through all our systems and improve them in the way she thought best.
I stopped her and said, "You know, CAP is a mature organization. We've worked hard on our systems and they purr. Our lawyer rewrote our personnel policies with us years ago and they're superb, they work beautifully for us.
"The only thing we need on our Board at this stage of our organizational development are people who want to do fundraising and be ambassadors for us in their networks. That's it.
"Our Board meetings are once a month at lunch time for an hour and we're strict about the time. We get a ton done because we're so focused."
She said, "But you can't do that. I really want to help you make changes and the Board is supposed to be involved in everything."
I said, "Well, this is how we do things because we're a mature organization. I can phone you tomorrow with the names of a dozen nonprofits who would love to have you and who need exactly what you want to give, but that's not us. Really and truly all we need are fundraisers.
"And if we started having meetings about personnel polices, I'm afraid we'd start losing some of our most effective members who have explicitly told us they don't want to be involved in that level of detail.
"I'm really sorry. There are so many things I like about you. I really mean that. But you can't be on our Board because it's just simply not a match for us. And I can't see how you would be happy when you want to do something very different than what we need.
"And I mean what I said, that if you're interested in Board service, I know some nonprofits that would give their right arm to have you."
Well, she was a little shocked. And so was I. I had never told anyone they couldn't be on our Board before.
But as I walked back to the office to report on what happened, I felt so proud that CAP had come so far, and that we were the kind of nonprofit that was willing to take a stand for itself, even if that meant saying no to a very sweet, very well-intentioned person.
Now, there's something else I want to add in here. It matters that you stop and think about exactly what you need. Really think it through deeply and well. There are some old chestnuts floating around the sector that sound like wisdom but aren't. For example...
Every nonprofit should have a lawyer and a CPA on the Board.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard this. And it sounds absolutely reasonable, except...
Say you're dealing with a really ugly personnel issue and you need to stay right on top of it. The lawyer on your Board has started handling the situation with you. So far so good, and now it's time to make the next move. But your Board member is not calling you back. What do you do?
He's a volunteer and he's your "boss." Do you feel free to kick his butt and insist on a call? What if you get through to him and he says, "Sorry, I just landed the biggest case in the history of my practice. It's taking all my time. So all my volunteer work is on hold."
Personally, Id prefer to have a formal professional relationship with my personnel lawyer. I'd want to be able to complain and get pushy if things were not happening quickly enough. I'd want to be a for-real client and be able to call the shots I need to call instead of having messy conversations with a Board member where it's unclear who's the ultimate decision maker.
Now of course there are exceptions. What if you know a lawyer you can absolutely count on? Cool.
But even then, are those free services worth a precious seat on your Board? You could just ask for pro bono work—unless this lawyer is exactly the kind of person you want on your Board for other reasons, too.
And of course, if your nonprofit provides legal services you might want the majority of your Board to be lawyers. But that's a decision you'll make based on your mission. And even then you still might want to have a separate lawyer for personnel matters.
Now what about CPAs? Maybe you want a CPA to serve as treasurer on your Board. No problem.
But I've heard people talk about putting a CPA on their Board to do the audits for free. Again, I'd rather pay a CPA for the audit, so I can insist that it gets done on time. Especially if I need it for grant proposals.
I would not want to have to push hard on a Board member because she's delinquent in her work on our financials when she's also on the committee that's doing my evaluation.
And besides, there's the simple fact that it would be a conflict of interest for a Board member to do your audit. It wouldn't have credibility.
The more conscious you are about what kind of people you need on your Board, the more vigilant you'll be at screening out people who don't belong. There are people who might be happy to join your Board, but whose motives would be at cross purposes with your mission discipline...
Maybe they just want to pump up their resume.
Maybe they don't have a life and Board status is a way to feel special.
Maybe they want to increase their social standing by hanging out with your other Board members.
Maybe they want you and your staff to dance attendance on them and be able to give you orders.
If a candidate doesn't have a compelling need to forward your mission, then you get to bring the conversation to an end. You can be kind and you can be considerate in what you say. But you don't have to enable or rescue or handle their feelings for them or anything else.
Another reason you want to see a compelling need is that so many people these days have extraordinarily busy lives, and...
Only if your mission is compelling to a Board member will he make his Board service the kind of priority you hope it will be.
The match of needs seems like such a simple, obvious thing. But it gets lost so easily in the rush of events.
To find the right people is a matter of self-defense and...
It's a matter of caring.
You want to take care of yourself and your staff. And getting the right people on the Board is crucial to doing that.
And you want to treat your Board members in a caring way, too. Their Board experience will only be fulfilling and uplifting if they are a match for your mission and a match, too, for the discipline with which you carry out that mission.
The specific, explicit contract you make with your Board candidates is the key to creating a top performing Board. It's not a legal contract. You make it by discovering a genuine match of needs.
A contract of character.
A contract of the heart.
Let's look at an example.
Mindy is the ED of the Teen Action Project and Srita is the Chair of the TAP Board. Blaise is an entrepreneur who has been on three Boards, but only for a year in each case. Mindy checked in with the EDs of those organizations and they raved about him and were really sad to lose him.
Srita has researched Blaise's business career and everything she found out about him says he's a stellar guy. The resignation problem is the only red flag. Everything else is a green light.
So Mindy and Srita have decided they want Blaise on their Board if he measures up to what they've heard and if they can resolve the red flag issue. But they are not going to issue a simple invitation. Instead they are going to do a negotiated invitation.
Mindy: Hi Blaise. Thanks so much for taking the time to consider with us the possibility of joining our Board. We want to talk this through with you in detail to see if this is a match both for you and for us.
Blaise: Well, I just hope I'm not wasting your time.Srita: How do you mean?
Blaise: I decided last year not to ever join another nonprofit Board. So I'm not even sure why I'm here.Srita: That's so interesting. What made you decide that?
Blaise: The Boards I served on were disappointing, and please don't take offense at this, but I don't have a very high opinion of nonprofit Boards these days.Mindy. No offense taken. What were you hoping for that didn't happen?
Blaise: I'm a really intense guy. When I'm working on building a business or when I take on a volunteer project, I'm super focused. I want to get the best results possible.Mindy: And on those Boards...
Blaise: I was the odd man out. I was on my own. But you can't do great work solo, not when it comes to an organization.Srita: Odd man out?
Blaise: I think those Boards liked having me there, but they didn't quite know what to do with me. And please keep this just between us, okay? They were good people. It just didn't work for me.Srita: Yes, this is absolutely just between us. But I'm curious what you mean when you say they didn't know what to do with you.
Blaise: All three of those Boards wanted to increase their fundraising and I'm good at that, I'm not shy about asking at all, and I did a bunch of asks for them. But they sat back and watched like they were the audience and I was the show.
They gave me lots of compliments, but the backwards kind where when they complimented me I felt worse.Mindy: Worse?!
Blaise: Yeh, like once I got a $5,000 donation and the Board President said, "Wow, Blaise, thanks. You're putting us all to shame."
Or at another organization, a woman said, "Hey, Blaise, you're amazing. You're a one-man Board. You leave the rest of us in the dust."
But you see, that's not what I wanted. I wanted company. I like being on a team. It's in my blood. I got to feeling awfully lonely on those Boards, so I quit.
Mindy: Wow, it makes me sad that your Board experience has been like that.
Srita. It makes perfect sense why you would quit under those conditions.Mindy: And it makes me all that much more appreciative that you would even have this conversation with us.
Blaise: Yeh, well, now you can see why I'm not a good prospect for you.Srita: Actually, I'm feeling more than ever like this is a match.
Blaise: Why?Srita: Because we have a Board that's fiercely committed to its standards.
Blaise: What do you mean?Srita: I'll be glad to answer that, but something just struck me. Even after all that disappointing experience with Boards, why did you agree to talk with us? Is there something calling to you?
Blaise: I hadn't thought about it like that. I guess there is or I would have stuck with my policy and told you no.Mindy: Is it okay to ask what's calling? What is it about TAP?
Blaise: Yes, that's okay. It's actually kind of strange that I'm interested in what you do because I'm not good with teenagers. I feel uncomfortable around them. And why is not a mystery. I was an odd duck when I was a teen. I didn't fit in. I'm glad those years are behind me.
I joined the debate team in 9th grade, a nerdy thing to do, but it was a great group and we were committed to each other, and that was my home base right through the end of my senior year. It's what got me through. So I guess I have pretty strong feelings about wanting every teen to have something to get them through.
I saw a lot of kids crash and burn at a time in their lives when they should have been opening up and taking off and going after big dreams. It's so wrong how things are set up against teens.
Mindy: Okay, now I really want you on our Board. What you just said really got to me. It's such a good way to say what we're about. You really are a kindred spirit.
Srita: What would you need to see in order to decide to join a Board and feel great about it?
Blaise: I guess I'd want it to be like my debate team. You know we won the state championships my senior year. And that was New York, so it was outrageously competitive.Srita: Let me tell you some things about our Board and see what you think. First of all, our Board is challenging to be on. But we love that because then we draw people who like challenges.
Blaise: Okay, that's intriguing.Srita: And our Board is adamant about its way of doing things.
Blaise: Which is?
Srita: We have a Board culture that means that everyone on the Board participates actively. It will never happen that all the work falls on one or two people.
We screen our Board candidates for character, so that means we don't have personality battles or sniping or rude comments or undermining or acting out or any kind of relational aggression. There's not one person on our Board who would tolerate it.
If someone slipped past our screening and started bullying or disrupting, we'd fire them out of there without a second thought.
Blaise: Wow.Srita: Is that a problem?
Blaise: Not at all. I love hearing it. TAP is up to big things, why should you ever put up with crap?Srita: Exactly. That's just how we feel about it. We love what we've created and make no apology for defending it.
Blaise: That's reassuring.Srita: We feel really proud that if someone is serious about making a difference for teens, our Board is a safe and supportive place to do that.
Blaise: I find it impressive that you've made that kind of culture. How'd you do it?
Srita: When I came on the Board, we had dwindled down to just four of us. So I decided to jump into the Chair role and Mindy had just been promoted to ED and we ignited each other. Both of us are very ambitious. We decided to go get exactly the right people for the Board no matter what it took or how long it took.
We decided we would never settle for less than what we wanted, ever. We now have seven dynamite Board members and the old members are gone.
Blaise: Congratulations! Really, congratulations. That's quite an accomplishment. It's so different from the typical nonprofit Board.
Srita: Thanks! It feels so good to have come this far. And it's been really fun to do it.
Mindy: It has indeed. You know, most EDs complain about their Boards, but mine makes my heart sing. That thing you said about being part of a team, that's how I feel with this Board.And let me explain another key to our success.
Mindy: We have two-hour Board meetings once a month, except December, so that's 22 hours a year. Not much time. So we count every Board minute as precious.
We have a very effective staff. Our systems are humming. And governance takes very little time with our Board.
So we can focus on the Board making its contribution to the mission. And so, when we interview Board candidates, we like to ask this: If there were only one thing you you could give to TAP, if there were only one difference you could make, what would it be?
Blaise: I'm not sure. It would have to be something I can do well. And it would be nice if it were something I really enjoyed doing. Maybe you could tell me what you need.Mindy: I like your point of view, because we take a stand that no Board member will do anything sacrificial. If a Board member is pushed to do something he doesn't want to do, then sooner or later that leads to resistance and resentment. And we don't want any of that on our Board.
Blaise: Very smart.
Mindy: So here's what we need. We have a great Board of thought partners. We have decisive people who are great at strategy. We have people who are enthusiastic, talkative ambassadors for TAP everywhere they go,
We're pursing you, though, because our current challenge is to take our Board fundraising to the next level.
Srita: We've got two Board members who hate fundraising and will not do it no matter what. But that's okay because they have something else they contribute. Kamar is a political activist who's built great relationships with all the top administrators in our district and with the School Board.
And Joey, she's an education professor. She's deeply involved with us in developing new programs for our teens.But the other five of us are eager to crack the problem of Board fundraising. We believe there's got to be a way to make asking work so that it won't be agony.
Blaise: Oh, yeh, there are lots of ways. This group sounds like a lot of fun.Srita: We really are. I thought I was going to whip this Board into shape and then move on, but I'm not going anywhere.
Blaise: Well, then, I'd be glad to talk with you about different ways to structure asking. I've had to do tons of asking to build my businesses, and at first it was daunting, but now I'm down with it, and it gives me such an advantage over my competition.Srita: What would you picture yourself doing?
Blaise: I could see getting the fundraising five together, six if you include me, and I'll lay out a menu of options. We'll look at the particular strengths of each person, and what their fears or hesitations are, and then together we'll make a game plan that's a perfect match for who we are.
Then we'll do our drills and get out on the field as soon as possible.Srita: Drills?
Blaise: Yeh, I don't believe it's right to give people a pep talk and then send them into action. That's a set up for failure. I want to make sure they're ready. I want to make sure each person gets exactly what they need so they can succeed.Mindy: Very cool. That's how we are with our teens. We don't just do flip-chart presentations with them and hope for the best. We go deep with every one of them. And then we follow through for as long as it takes. We're dogged about that. That's the secret to our success.
Blaise: I like that. That's the kind of thing I'd be proud to be part of. So what do you think, would I be a match for you?
Srita: Absolutely. What you want to give us is exactly what we need. Mindy?
Mindy: Yes! It's a go.Srita: Blaise, do you have any more questions for us? Anything else at all? Any concerns or hesitations. Please don't be polite. Don't hold back from asking what you need to ask.
Blaise: No. I'm really happy with what I've heard. This conversation has gone far beyond what I expected.Srita: Okay, then, Blaise, I want to officially invite you to join the Board of TAP.
Blaise: I'd be delighted. I can't believe I'm saying that. I'd really like to be of service and my last three experiences have made me feel like a failure. But this sounds so different. How soon can we set up a meeting on the fundraising?
And listen, Srita, how about if we make a deal to check in once a month for ten minutes to make sure that I'm doing what you want me to do and to also make sure that I'm not starting to feel like the odd man out.
Srita: Deal. I'd like to do that. Get out your calendar and tell me some good times for you for a fundraising meeting and I'll get the other Board members organized. And welcome to our Board!
Contracting conversations can have such different flavors depending on the personalities involved. But there are underlying principles that are common to the best ones. Let's zip through some of these.
Personal not presentational
The very first thing Blaise said gave Srita the chance to turn the conversation in the personal direction and she jumped on it. And when Blaise was talking personally about his high school days, she and Mindy saw the deep, personal connection he had with their mission.
If a candidate wants to keep the conversation more formal, there's no problem with honoring that. Not everyone wants to open up like Blaise did. But it's more revealing when they do and that can help you be more certain about your decision.
Research puts you in a strong position
Did this conversation seem too sweet and easy? It was sweet because Mindy and Srita had done their research. They knew a lot about Blaise. They knew he might be able to give them the very thing they wanted with regard to fundraising. They knew the red flag they needed to check out.
When you know, going into the conversation, that you're at least in the right ballpark, then it doesn't have to be a struggle.
A gift that's also a warning
Highly-effective people want to know that you've got a highly-effective Board culture. Otherwise it won't be a match for them.
Notice Srita said, "Our Board is challenging to be on." That didn't scare Blaise off. It helped draw him in.
And when Srita talked about the Board culture she didn't use pretty or abstract talk. She was passionate. She nailed it. She demonstrated not just with words, but with her emotional energy that the Board was super serious about its culture.
Again, that didn't scare Blaise off, it drew him in closer.
It's a gift to be able to say to a candidate...
If you join this Board it will be a place where you can make a significant difference without any kind of crazy or distressing stuff getting in the way.
And Srita presented her Board culture with pride, like...
We're so happy to offer this kind of experience to our Board members.
But this discussion of Board culture, presented as a gift, also serves as a warning. Lots of people know that a nonprofit Board is a great place to run their acting out games because it's so easy to get away with almost anything on many nonprofit Boards because so few of them ever discipline any of their members.
When you take an unhesitating, almost militant stand for your Board culture, anyone who's eyeing your organization as a venue for uproar and emotional drama will know that they can't do their thing at your expense. You won't tolerate it for a moment.
So then, unfortunately, they'll go find a Board that is vulnerable to acting out.
The one thing
What are you asking your Board members for?
Basic governance duties, that's for sure. That's true for any Board. But I recommend that you...
Ask only for the governance you need and not one bit more.
I've seen sample lists of Board duties that go on for ever. Really elaborate lists.
And it's just not believable that any Board could do all those things. And if they did all that governance they wouldn't have time to do anything else for the organization.
If you show a list like that to a highly effective person, you might lose her because all she'll think is you don't really know what you're doing.
And those lists can drive you into the Pretty Board Syndrome. You end up with a Board that would make an academic Board theorist ecstatic, but gives you nothing out there on the front lines of social change.
And if governance is all you want from your Board then ask for that and be prepared to settle for that. And be prepared to end up with a Board that's more bureaucratic in spirit. Or slips into becoming watchdogs.
But if you want a Board of activists and champions, then I recommend not doing a global ask. Don't ask for everything including the kitchen sink.
Ask for the basic governance duties you really, really need.
And then ask for the one special thing that this particular Board member can give you and wants to give you.
If he wants to give more, cool. But start with the one most important thing. Because otherwise how will a Board member ever feel like they've done enough? You know how it is with EDs. Their work is never done. That's not good for them.
And it's not good for Board members either. Let's ask them to sign up for something doable so they can feel fulfilled. So they can feel like, Okay, I've really done it. I've made an important difference.
Let's not ask them to chase infinity. That's part of the sacrificial operating system.
If Blaise takes the TAP Board to the next level in terms of their fundraising, how great would that be? And wouldn't that be enough from him for his first year of Board service?
He's a guy who likes challenges. It's likely he's naturally going to want to do more and build on his success. So let's not bury someone like that in shoulds. Let's let him be a success and enjoy that and let him be inspired by himself instead of keeping him trapped in the mindset that says no matter how much you give it's never enough.
And please don't be cheap. Don't give up a Board seat for a maybe. You're worth more than that. You deserve to have Board members who make a deal with you about what they're going to do and then follow through. That's what makes them a true Board member, not the title.
And if they ever stop being a true Board member then you get to take the title away. Our missions really matter. We're not playing a game of pretend here. Real people are in real pain in the real world and the point of a nonprofit is to do something about that.
So please think deeply about what you need and what you want. And then go shopping for Board members who can give you that...
We'd want Joe to get us a leadership grant from his company's foundation.
We'd want Josie to donate $5,000 personally.
We'd want Roberto to bring 30 contacts to our point of entry events.
We'd want Tilda to become chair in the Fall and turn this into a fundraising Board.
We'd want Davy to go out with our ED or DD on a dozen major asks.
We'd want Oscar to lead the Board in strategic thinking for thirty minutes at every meeting.
We'd want Charlotte to be a thought partner with our program director.
And there are so many more possibilities. That's why it's great to get personal in a conversation with a candidate and do serious brainstorming with them. The candidate may come up with a counteroffer you never would have imagined...
Trella: Hi, Dennie. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about joining the Board of Arts for All. I'd really like to see if there's a match here, both for you and for us.
Dennie: Sure, thing. I love what you do. My daughter took one of your workshops and discovered talents she didn't know she had. I can't tell you how grateful I am. There's a new light in her eyes.
So, yes, I'm really interested in helping out. What did you have in mind?
Trella: Well, we were thinking since you're one of the top professional artists in town that you might help us with our fundraising. You know, connect us to people with money who care about the arts.
I'd like to talk with you about whether that's a match for you.
Dennie: You know what, I'd be glad to host events at my gallery if you want. That's easy and I love showing it off. Especially since I refurbished it last year.Trella: Wow, that would be perfect to do our events in an art space. And your gallery is stunning.
Dennie: Thanks, but here's the thing. On my way over, I realized something. Not many people know this, but before my art became successful, I was a CPA.Trella: No, I didn't know that. I never would have guessed.
Dennie: I'm so happy doing what I'm doing now, but I miss the accounting. Does that seem strange?Trella: Not if it's something you love.
Dennie: It is. I would never again want to do it all day long, but do you need a treasurer on your Board?Trella: We absolutely do. Nobody on our Board knows finances, so they take six-month turns handing off the treasurer job. But that's not a good solution. Tell me more.
Dennie: I like the idea of showing people that there's another side to me besides the artist. And I believe in organizations having impeccable financials. I think that helps with the fundraising if you can demonstrate that you do top-notch financial management.Trella: Okay, I'm really liking this. Our bookkeeper is excellent but he's not full charge. His skills are more basic than advanced. He keeps telling me that we need to increase our internal controls and that he needs someone to check in with when he's stumped by a posting question.
Dennie: That sounds good. I'd be glad to come in and go through your systems with him. And I could help him make a plan for developing his skills.Trella: Perfect, he's very open to learning. He was in an assistant position but he's very bright so we pushed him into bookkeeping. And the bug has bit, he's discovered that finances are his thing.
Dennie: That sounds great. And if I were your treasurer, I'd be glad to work with the Board on creating the kind of reports they need. I'm very good at walking folks through financial statements in language that even artistic people can understand.Trella: We need that. What a surprise! I wasn't expecting our conversation to take this turn at all.
Dennie: Okay, but would that be enough if I did those two things? Treasurer and hosting events at my gallery? I don't have lots of time, but I could handle those two things really well.Trella: Absolutely. We'd feel great about you doing those two things. This is definitely a match. Do you want to walk down the hall with me and meet Alberto and have a look at our books before you make your final decision?
Dennie: Yes. That works for me. And you know what?Trella: What?
Dennie: It's going to be such fun to show the community that an arts organization doesn't have to be ditzy when it comes to the business side of things, that we can really shine.
Negotiating pays off
Sometimes people think negotiating is what you do with adversaries.
But my teacher, Jim Camp, one of the country's top negotiators, used to tell us...
The person I negotiate most with is my wife. And then my kids. Because that's where the most is at stake for me. I want those relationships to be at their best at all times.
Negotiation, in the way I like to use the word, in Jim's way, is the key to building strong relationships that will sustain and just keep getting better.
So, yes, when you do a negotiated invitation with a Board candidate, you're protecting yourself. You're doing self-defense. You're screening out people who will not be right for your nonprofit.
But even better, you're laying the foundation for a working partnership that you hope will thrive for years.
That's why I urge people not to rush through the Board building process. Take the time to do your research. When you set up an interview with a candidate, make sure you have plenty of time to go deep with that person if they're open to it. Don't have yourself so tightly scheduled that you have to rush off before the conversation is really done.
And you might want to have multiple interviews. Sometimes recruiting top flight Board members is a bit like courting...
At my old organization CAP, when we lost our state funding, we decided to recruit high-level corporate executives and community leaders.
I met Jared at a meeting of business owners at his bank. We got to talking afterwards and he seemed sincerely interested in our work. So I researched him. I knew he was a big deal, but I didn't know how big a deal. He was connected to all the political players in our city. He had served on prestigious Boards.
And best of all, everyone I talked to said he was known for his integrity. That word came up every single time.
So I called him and set a meeting. I told him we were a mature organization and all we needed were fundraisers and ambassadors. Not only did he not choke at that, but he was happy to hear it. That's the kind of Board he liked to be on.
Over the next three months we had four meetings or lunches with different mixes of our staff involved. Did it bother us that the process took so long? Not at all. This was a serious guy treating us with the same seriousness that he treated those big prestigious Boards he had been on. We knew that if he said yes, he'd be the best Board member ever.
In our final meeting at our office, he said,
"I'm very interested in your organization and your challenges, but there's just one more thing. There are a couple people in town who get on Boards and cause trouble."
I said, "Stop right there. If you don't want them, then we don't want them. So from now on when we get interested in a Board candidate we'll tell you the name, and if it's a troublemaker all you need to do is say no. You don't even have to explain. We'll toss the name."
Jared said, "Okay, I'd like to be on your Board."
We learned so much from him about how to negotiate with Board candidates to make sure there was a solid match, and what we learned was such a contribution to us that if Jared had never done another thing for CAP it would have been okay.
But once he was on our Board he gave us a special kind of credibility and social proofing. The next two VIPs we recruited were impressed to see his name on our Board list. That's why they agreed to talk with us.
And once we got those first three, then the calls to additional prospects became so much easier.
"Hi, this is Rich from CAP. We're not making invitations yet, but we'd like to talk with you about being on our Board. Our current members include Jared, Frank, and Marilyn."
"Yes! I'll talk with you. Let's look at our calendars."
And then the day came when we got a call from a VIP who said...
"I noticed that Jared, Frank, and Marilyn are on your Board and I'm wondering if you're looking for additional Board members."
That made recruiting a whole lot easier. But now we had a new problem. We had to exercise due diligence to make sure that people were joining out Board because they sincerely cared about the mission and understood it, in addition to being interested in working with the business and community leaders on our roster.
With Jared we went slow to go fast. Taking the time to create the right relationship with him meant we rebuilt our Board faster than we ever expected.
A final thought
I've given some happy examples on this page of recruiting Board members. But I don't want to give the impression that if you just do the right things you're going to be successful. There's so much that's beyond your control.
I've seen EDs do everything right and still they aren't able to build the Board they want. And why?
Some of them work in communities where social change is not at all popular. So that means their pool of possible candidates is very small.
Some of them work for organizations that have missions that are not especially popular anywhere, so it's hard to find people who will take a stand with them.
Some of them can find people willing to be on the Board, but those people want to tone down the mission of the organization to make it more acceptable, more vanilla. So that won't work.
Please keep remembering, social change and social justice organizations are challenging the way power works. And that means we have a special challenge when it comes to recruiting Board members.
We can't control the world. We're not ultimately in charge of outcomes, only our own behavior. We can only do our best.
And if we do that, hooray.
© 2008 Rich Snowdon