Today I completed a survey for the Nonprofit Quarterly about what upcoming topics they should cover in their publication for nonprofits. One question that gave me pause was something like, “what trends are you seeing in nonprofits that worry you?” Not wanting to point out the obvious (dwindling revenue and leadership burnout), I answered, “It is increasingly difficult for small and mid-sized community nonprofits to recruit and retain committed and qualified Board members.” Then it hit me – I know something about this that might be useful to nonprofits. 10 years ago, I was training recruiters and writing about creative ways to recruit hard-to-fill positions for companies big and small. First as head of Staffing and Employment at PNC, then as an owner of a staffing and training company, and (when I absolutely had to) as part of the search team at Dewey & Kaye, I’ve spent 10 of the last 15 years dealing with some aspect of what is now called “Talent Acquisition.”
So I thought about the executive recruiting techniques I have used and that could be applied to the recruitment of Board Members and voilà…
1. I tell clients that my entire 25 years of knowledge and advice about Human Resources can be summed up by the phrase “Hire Slowly, Fire Quickly.” Let’s focus on the “hire slowly” - no matter how desperate you are to fill a chair with a breathing body; never, ever, ever take the only candidate available or the best of a mediocre group. You will always pay the price. For a nonprofit Board that price could be a member who doesn’t show up at meetings, or that you have to work around until their term expires. Unless you have cultivated a pipeline of candidates in advance, it takes on average 5-6 months to fill an Executive position. Why should you expect that a Board position would take less time? Start Now.
2. Recruiting always starts with gaining clarity about what you are looking for in a hire. You can’t write a job posting (remember when they were called “want ads”?) without thinking about what qualifications you need. It is the same for Boards. What skills, competencies, and characteristics are you looking for? What demographics will you target? I just helped a small board, using what is now a common tool called a Board Matrix, and we agreed that we needed people with finance, legal, and fundraising skills to round out the existing Board. We also wanted people under 40 since we had none of those on the Board (not unusual in this region). Other considerations included someone who lived in the zip codes the organization served and who had connections to high schools which is the target of the services the organization provides. This exercise allowed us to be very clear about the types of people we would target.
3. Once you understand your target demographic and needed skills, the next question is, “So where do these types of people hang out or work?” In my sample case above, we started by looking at all the law firms and accounting firms in the target zip codes. We looked at the local high schools for teachers and guidance counselors. We looked at the bigger businesses in the area that employed people with these skills. If not geographically limited, we could try the County Bar Association, the Association of CPAs, or the alumni of local Business Schools – all of them have publications and many have online or social media hubs where you might be able to place a tasteful posting.
4. What’s the sales hook? Every good recruiter knows that just posting a job ad won’t get you much (they call that technique “post and pray”). Instead you need to focus on the key benefit or motivator for the job that will attract the attention of the best candidates. Look at how Todd Owens writes the headlines or tweets for the jobs he is recruiting for in NonprofiTalent. Not “Executive Assistant needed for the Council on Social Work” but instead he leads with “Without social workers we might not have a nonprofit sector.” What’s the hook for your Board member job? Practically speaking, while some people will take on a Board position because they believe in your mission, there are many great people who don’t know you exist, but are looking for a networking opportunity, to gain visibility in their town, or to develop their leadership skills. What if your headline was, “Build your leadership skills and your professional network while working to stop Domestic Violence in our community as a Board Member of ABC.” That’s far more effective than “Board Member needed for Domestic Violence Agency”. I’d be glad to argue with those of you who believe that “passion for the mission”is the price of entry, but this Blue Avocado article does it better in The Trouble with "Passion for the Mission.
5. Every Corporate Recruiter will admit that referrals from current employees are the single greatest sources of hiring (in many companies employee referrals make up 45% of new hires). The thinking is this: you won’t refer a poor candidate (loser) to your employer because it will reflect badly on you. And you will have to work with the person regularly to remind you of your judgement lapse. Companies also recognze that you, the employee, are the best advertisement for why this is a good place to work (you wouldn’t refer a friend to a place that you hated right?). These same assumptions can apply to recruiting Board members. Your current Board members, if they are engaged and happy in their Board role, will serve as the best spokesperson for the organization and its Board. And, hopefully, they won’t refer a poor board candidate because that will reflect badly on the referring member. Remember that to get good referrals from current members, Board members needs to know exactly what you are looking for and how best to sell the position.
6. Nonprofits have become adept at using social media and direct mail to ask for donations and to increase awareness. These same tools can be used to find potential Board candidates. A nonprofit where I have been a Board member used its annual appeal mailing to solicit Board members, volunteers, and/or donations. Consider using a member list to identify possible board recruits, or make an announcement at your annual event.
7. Here are 2 FREE places to place your newly written, motivating, and focused Board Job Posting. The first is particularly helpful for those Boards located in PA and OH – with a heavy emphasis on western PA. Nonprofitalent, formerly Dewey & Kaye’s JobWatch, will list Board openings as well as nonprofit Job openings. Their Board posting is a new service and IMHO not yet as widely used as it should be – did I mention FREE? Read the other Board postings for ideas on how to write a catchy posting. Other cities may have similar services, often run through a university that has a Board Matching program. Nationally Bridgespan offers a board posting service for a small fee.
The other little known service is through LinkedIn. If you aren’t signed up for LinkedIn do it today. For the few who are not familiar with this social media, LinkedIn is the professional (work) version of Facebook and is an excellent way to build your network. It has also become the number 2 (after referrals) way for recruiters to find talent. LinkedIn has just recently passed Monster as the go to source for finding job candidates. To get more information about LinkedIn’s service for nonprofits seeking board members go to LinkedIn Board Member Connect. P.S. While you are out on LinkedIn, connect with me and I’d be happy to refer your Board Posting to my growing network.
I'll address keeping and engaging Board members in a future post. If you find any value in these suggestions or have a success story because of one of them, or have a recruiting tip you want to share, please contact me or post a comment below. Happy Hunting.