Do you want to build a great board of directors for your nonprofit? Sure! But it’s harder than it looks.

Even if you recruit terrific people, which of course is not easy, that’s no guarantee that you’ll have a high-functioning board. A lot of boards turn out to be less than the sum of the parts.

There are many possible reasons for board underperformance, but one may be that your organization has recruited the wrong combination of individuals. Here are three traps well-intentioned nonprofits fall into in their board recruitment.

1. The Noah’s Ark Approach.
In Genesis, there were two of every animal. The modern nonprofit board equivalent is one of every profession. One attorney. One accountant. One human resource professional. One banker. One media person. One IT guy. That sort of thing.

For tiny start-up nonprofits, this might make sense, because it’s likely that the board members will be carrying out much of the day-to-day work. For example, the accountant on the board may actually have to do the organization’s bookkeeping during the first year or two. But once an organization gets large enough to have professional staff, there’s no need to have one of each profession on the board.

Diversity – not only of professions, but of gender, age, race, religion, political viewpoint, and geography – is vitally important. But what a mature organization needs beyond diversity is a core of individuals of whatever background who can see the big picture, serve as ambassadors in the community, connect the organization to sources of financial support, make significant gifts themselves, and – an attribute that is often overlooked – potentially assume the role of board chair.

Ask yourself if the person you’re recruiting has the wisdom, maturity, energy, presence, humor, and commitment to eventually become the board chair. At least a third of your board recruits should fit that profile. If not, you’re setting yourself up for a leadership crisis a few years down the road.

2. The Class Reunion Approach. If everyone on your board knows one another from going to school together, working together, living in the same neighborhood, belonging to the same country club, or going to the same church, you’re going to underachieve as an organization.

People like to recruit their friends to a board. There’s nothing wrong with friendship, of course. (Let the record show that I’m in favor of friendship!) But if everyone on your board already hangs around together, that means you’re drawing from a very small social circle.

As well-regarded consultant Chuck Loring describes it, all board members arrive at an organization with their own spheres of influence. These are the people the board members know from their neighborhoods, work, and activities. If those spheres of influence overlap dramatically, that’s not terribly helpful to the organization, either for getting a multiplicity of viewpoints or for reaching out to the community for support.

3. The More, the Merrier Approach. Some boards have a hard time making choices in their nominating process – so they invite everyone. The by-laws may allow for large boards, but that doesn’t mean that they’re a good idea.

I’ve found that there’s a Goldilocks Rule for boards: some are too large, some are too small, and some are just right. For most organizations, having a board of 12 to 15 provides enough people to share the work and to have a thoughtful conversation with diverse viewpoints, but not so many that it’s possible for people to hide or disengage.

If you have a board of 25 or 30 people, then inevitably the real decisions will be made by a small sub-set – four or five folks. Those leaders will run the show, perhaps through an executive committee. There will be less engagement by the other board members, less commitment, and possibly some resentment.

Make strategic choices in your nominating process. Keep the number of board members in the effective zone.

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It’s important to have a board that’s appropriately diverse, filled with far-sighted, big-picture, well-connected leaders, and of a functional size.

That, of course, is only the first step. I’d love to say that getting the right combination of the right people is all you need to have a successful, high-achieving board. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to it than that. Those other issues are fodder for future blog posts. In the meantime, round up a great bunch of people for your board, will you?

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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