Should a board of directors be made up of friends and relatives? Worker bees willing to knock themselves out on behalf of your non-profit? Or community leaders who are able to help the organization grow through their financial and business contacts? The answer is, “Yes, all of the above, but at different times in the growth of your organization.”
Starting Out: Small and Friendly
A new, small non-profit is unlikely to have the drawing power to attract community movers and shakers, so you’re most likely to start out with a board of individuals who are a part of your personal circle. The up-side to this is that they are likely to be loyal and supportive. The down-side is that they are loyal not to the organization and its mission, but to you. As a result, while they’re happy to tell you you’re doing a great job, they may be less happy to give up weekends and evenings to help run events, raise funds, or develop a realistic budget.
While a board made up of friends and family is a great place to get personal support, it’s important to know that such a board is unlikely to help your organization move much beyond a “mom and pop” level either financially or otherwise. That’s because their commitment is to you – and not to your organization or your mission. It’s also because, most likely, your friends and family won’t represent top community leadership or funding prospects. If you like being a small, low-budget organization, you may want to just enjoy the support and friendship you’ve gathered, and leave your board at that. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in growth, you’ll need to think about taking the next steps in board development.
Growing Your Board’s Strength
As your organization grows, you may find that some members of your core board are increasingly involved with the organization, while other members lose interest. That’s okay, if you can find a way to move your less involved buddies into support roles (volunteers, advisors, etc.) and find new board members who are less focused on you and more focused on the organization. Ideally, new board members will also be better positioned to help you raise your profile, improve the bottom line, and meet your organizational goals.
Some of these new members may be hands-on workers, but at least some should be selected on the basis of who they are in the community, and not on the basis of how strong their backs are!
Where can you find potential board members who may not know you personally?
Start by asking your best existing board members for their ideas. Often, your inner circle has connections you never knew about, including cousins who run businesses, friends who manage community foundations, and uncles who happen to be in the state senate. If a board member has such a connection, now is great time for him to prove his worth by calling on his friend or relative and inviting them to learn more about your organization.
Another good place for finding and recruiting new board members is at meetings of top community leaders. Join and attend Chamber of Commerce events, bring lots of your business cards, and schmooze. Join the local Rotary Club, and connect with prospective board members and funders. If the Kiwanis or Optimists are major players in your town, get involved.
Building a Power Board
Once you’re an established non-profit entity in your community, it’s time to move your board to a higher level. Now, you’ll want to recruit community members who are willing and able to help you make the money flow. A mature board includes mainly business people and community leaders who have the capacity and willingness to actually look a wealthy individual in the eye and ask for financial support. Only board members with a high level of commitment and a solid set of connections can help your organization with major projects like building an endowment or launching a capital campaign.
As before, you may well be able to find top board prospects through your existing board. Now, though, you may also need to get involved with your own community at a higher level. To meet and shake hands with top community leaders, you need to meet them where they live. That may mean joining a club, attending a fundraiser, or asking for an introduction from a mutual friend. If there are charitable events (galas, auctions) that the wealthier philanthropists in town generally attend, you might try to wangle an invitation.
You won’t recruit directly from golf tournaments or galas, but you’ll have a chance to introduce yourself and your cause, make connections, and exchange cards. Once you have the interest and attention of a prospective heavy hitter, you’ll have a chance to extend an invitation to come and see what it is you do, and why your work matters. It’s here – at your non-profit’s headquarters – that you’ll be able to get across the excitement and importance of your organization. Be sure you have a terrific presentation ready, and great people, projects or outcomes to display. One on one, you can make the “sale,” and bring top board members to the table.