Researching for Nonprofit Board Prospects

Recruiting the right board members is critical to a nonprofit’s success. However, finding prospects who are a good match is difficult for many organizations.

In fact, BoardSource’s 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index reports that almost 60 percent of nonprofit leaders shared having difficulty in recruiting new board members. Its 2015 publication Leading with Intent reports that only 73 percent of nonprofit leaders believe they have the correct board members for carrying out their organization’s mission.

After reading Prospect Research for Fundraisers by donor research experts Jen Filla and Helen E. Brown, I realized adapting their methodology for finding donors can help nonprofits overcome the challenge of finding board members.

To further explore this concept I reached out to Jen, and she concurred. As she observed, approaching potential board members is like approaching new donors. “When there is an important decision to be made, it is worth investing time and resources to do proper research.”

Dedicating time and resources to checking out the backgrounds of prospective board members provides a filtering structure that identifies and evaluates individuals most likely willing and able to meet board performance expectations.

“The objective is to obtain hard information,” Jen said. “Due diligence is critical because it allows decision-makers to see facts about behavior, past performance history with other organizations, and whether or not an individual is aligned with your mission.”

As a result of reading and talking with Jen, I have identified five steps for applying donor research techniques to finding best fit board members for your nonprofit.

1. Develop prospect criteria. Based on board performance expectations, what personality traits, skill sets, past board experience, history of giving, and other priority qualification categories are important for your organization’s board candidates?

Jen recommends creating a scorecard with a grading column for each evaluation standard.

2. Identify prospects. For board prospecting, she suggests, “make a list of names from your organization’s donor database, suggestions from your current and past board members, civic clubs, Chambers of Commerce, and others.”

Also, consider your list of key volunteers. Another resource could be local nonprofit and volunteer centers that maintain lists of individuals who have expressed an interest in board service.

Profiles of prospects should be created and organized for easy reference later.

3. Conduct online research. Background on most prospects is readily available with a little work. Internet search tools provide a wide range of information relevant to your board criteria and individuals on your prospect list. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn offer insightful individual profiles.

In addition to using online information, Jen urges those responsible for conducting research not to overlook personal contact with acquaintances of your prospects. She says peer reviews can be invaluable.

4. Evaluate prospects. Once information has been collected it’s time to evaluate each individual. Use of a score sheet helps, but the most important evaluation comes from face-to-face conversation. The dialogue should be structured so the prospect’s feelings about the organization and possible board service become readily apparent.

It is equally important for prospects to be engaged with asking their own questions to establish their comfort level for saying yes to a board invitation.

5. Rank Your Prospects. The first four steps will allow you to rank your prospects in order of recruitment priority or decide whom to move off your list.

Implementing this due diligence procedure does take time. Jen cautions, “It is a mistake to think that good research is easy or fast.”

So do the work in advance of when replacements will be needed for expiring terms. Even better, if you make this process an ongoing one, you’ll be prepared for unexpected vacancies.

It is vital to select board members who are a good fit. Applying the same systematic approach to prospecting for board members as you would to prospecting for donors will position your organization to have the strongest board possible.

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