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Who’s On Board?

Why do board members serve? What does your organization need in a governance team? Without understanding the answers to both of those questions, your organization will struggle to recruit and engage an effective leadership. In the following article, we provide some helpful tools, strategies, data and insights, starting with the results from our latest study, delving into board member motivations.

To help you get it right from the start, we then ask GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor to share her process for understanding your mission-critical board needs and assembling a governance team that meets them all. We follow up with Senior Affiliate Consultant Jack Beckford—a seasoned board trainer and small nonprofit specialist—for some places to look for the board talent you need to start courting. Then, Dana Lupton and Heather Infantry, of member nonprofit Moving in the Spirit, contribute a practical look at the difference an engaged board makes.

Together, they’ll show you how to understand the team you have, recruit for the team you need, and make sure each individual board member has the structure and support to lead your organization. Following that, you’ll find a rundown of online board-building resources from GCN, detailing our growing inventory of tools and articles (all at gcn.org/boards), annual training opportunities, and consulting expertise.



The first thing you have to do is stop thinking of them simply as “The Board.” 

Start by understanding your board members one at a time—as individuals—each with his or her individual motivations, talents, interests, and values. Yes, they’ve agreed to help lead your organization to greatness—but it’s up to you to discover what each board member’s abilities are, and what drives him or her to put those abilities to use. Otherwise, you can’t ever expect to get the best of them working for your organization.

To provide a starting point for the process of understanding what activates your board members—what drives them to serve as volunteer leaders—GCN, in partnership with research teams at Old Dominion University and Seattle University, conducted a motivation survey of board members at 726 Georgia nonprofits. We’ve brought some of the conclusions together below, giving you a launching point for the deeper investigation into what, exactly, drives your board members to give their best.


Why they’re here

According to our study, Board Member Motivation at Georgia Nonprofits, board members are here largely to serve—the top five reasons given for joining a board all involve service: to the organization, to the mission, to the beneficiaries, and to society at large. Filling out the last five: the desire to work (“share my expertise and professional skills”), to join (“loyalty and respect for the organization,” “to work with others”), and to learn—and not just “about the organization and the cause,” but about themselves. (Reason no. 10, out of 27? “Opportunity for personal growth.”)

"In order to earn their loyalty and respect, every interaction with your organization needs to be valuable. That means personal and meaningful. People work for people."

Asking why veteran board members stick with their role, we found some subtle but significant shifts: The desire to serve becomes more focused on the mission, the beneficiaries, and the organization. The desire to learn becomes more focused on the organization and the community. By far the most weighty shift: a 20-percentage-point jump in “loyalty to and respect for the organization.”

Cindy Cheatham, a senior affiliate consultant of GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, says that shift indicates that the most important part of retaining a board member is cultivating his or her personal relationship with the organization: “That jump in ‘loyalty’ may be the most significant finding in this report. In order to earn their loyalty and respect, every interaction with your organization needs to be valuable. That means personal and meaningful. People work for people.”

Other questions looked into the background of board members: most (73%) were taught as children they should “lend a helping hand,” and a strong majority (62%) attended religious services as kids often or “all of the time.” Almost all of them (90%) say public service is “very important,” most (83%) say they’re moved by the plight of the underprivileged, and most (75%) think “patriotism” includes seeing to the welfare of others.

Together, these facts give us a picture of the board member in general: the type of cloth he’s cut from, the kinds of motivations he generally brings to the boardroom. Generally speaking, they’re driven to serve, at least initially, by an ingrained sense of duty, often religiously-, spiritually-, or community-based—which also gives us a sense of where to find good board member candidates, and what to ask about when we vet them.





Out of 27 choices, these are the ten responses chosen most often by board members when asked why they first joined a nonprofit board.

1. To serve the organization and contribute to its success
2. To be helpful to others
3. To contribute to society
4. Sense of duty/commitment to the mission
5. To help the par­ticular group that this organization serves
6. To share my expertise and professional skills
7. Out of loyalty to and respect for the organization
8. I have a desire to work with others
9. To learn more about the orga­nization and the cause it supports
10. Opportunity for personal growth

Source: Board Member Motivation at Georgia Non­profits, GCN/Old Dominion University/Seattle University

Who you need

Just as important as developing a deep individual rela­tionship with each board member, it’s also important to understand what your team of individuals amounts to, and what qualities, skills, and connections it still needs to fulfill all your organization’s strategic goals—that is, to become a well-rounded, fully-functional superteam capable of taking on any challenge.

To figure out what kinds of individuals your team has, and what kinds it still needs, you need a process for dis­cerning assets and talent gaps on your board, in relation to your strategic goals. To do that, we advocate laying out your strategic goals and the skill sets necessary to achieve those goals, then determining which of those skill-sets your board already has on-hand. In our years training nonprofit EDs and boards, we’ve developed a simple method for pro­ducing three handy reference charts that will tell you, at a glance, the key assets your board has, and needs, to make your initiatives successful.

“By implementing an intentional process for discerning strengths and gaps on the board, vetting candidates and prioritizing them appropriately,” says Beavor, “you’ll find not only that your candidates are better suited to the work at hand, but that new members will begin their tenure with clearly-defined roles.”

Beavor’s “fairly foolproof methodology” begins with a Strategic Needs Table.




A sample Strategic Needs Table, listing strategic goals and the skill sets needed to execute the strategies involved. Note that contract expertise is useful for more than one goal, meaning that particular skill-set should be a priority.



Start by placing your organization’s strategic goals across the top row of a table. Think about the strategies you’ve decided on to reach those goals, and list the skill sets you’ll need to accomplish them beneath.

“If your goal is to, say, increase the availability of quality affordable housing, one of your strategies might be to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed properties, then rent them at an affordable rate,” says Beavor. “For that, you probably need a number of skill sets: real estate expertise to negotiate deals, banking expertise to assist with financ­ing, an attorney to manage contracts, and a contractor for renovation and maintenance.”

As you look across all your goals and strategies, you’re also looking for repeating skill-sets. The need for an attorney, for instance, might arise across a number of goals. Therefore, having an attorney on your board might become a priority position to fill. This person could provide legal advisement, connections to other attorneys, or legal resources and guidance.

Who you have

Before you can determine the types of board members you need to recruit, you’ve got to understand who on the board already understands the ins and outs of each strategy. To do that, you’ll need to construct a Current Board Inventory.


A sample Current Board Inventory, listing current board members in the left-hand column and skill-sets needed across the top row. Note that no one in this list possesses expertise in contract law, meaning this is a skill-set you should look for in your next board recruit.


That means creating another table, this one listing the skill-sets identified by your Strategic Needs Table across the top row, and your current board members down the left-hand column. For each board member, put a check beneath the skill sets they possess. If you don’t yet know your board members well enough to make an accurate inventory—and don’t assume you do—Beavor advises creating a short survey that you can send through email or conduct over the phone. Be sure to ask about current and past employment; significant hobbies; major corporate, philanthropic, or donor relationships; professional association involvement; political positions held; and any other boards served on. You may be surprised!

With your board inventory finished, you should be able to see, at a glance, the strengths your board possesses and the gaps that need filling. “From that table,” says Beavor, “it should be easy to create a prioritized list of skills, talents, and connections you must seek in the next board members you recruit.”

Who you want

You should also take time to decide what you want in your next recruit, because you are creating a board culture as much as you’re seeking skills—and it won’t matter how many strategic needs a particular candidate fills if there’s no cultural fit. “If they can’t connect with your organization, chances are they won’t stick around long enough make an impact,” says Beavor, and the research backs her up. (Recall that 20-point jump in the importance of “loyalty to and respect for the organization” to board members who stick with the position.)

To come up with a list of desired cultural attributes, Beavor suggests thinking about the foundational values of your organization, the work style of your staff and programs, and the qualities you most appreciate in the board members you have. These might include an affinity for improvisation (or for long-term planning); an attitude of positivity and agreeableness (or skepticism and challenge); a certain geographic reach; a kind of diversity (racial, gender, socioeconomic, political); a particular community connection; or the ability to make a personal gift, or to get others to give.

“If they can’t connect with your organization, chances are they won’t stick around loud enough to make an impact.” 

“At one nonprofit we work with,” says Beavor, “the key attribute is ’nice.’ That’s their code for assertive and positive, rather than contentious or argumentative.”

Once you’ve decided on these key attributes, you can create a Recruit Attributes Chart, much like the Current Board Inventory, accounting for these qualities in the candidates you interview. With that table, you can prioritize recruits who fulfill the same skill-set by their “fit”: that is, how many cultural attributes one marketing expert fulfills compared to the other marketing experts you’re interviewing.

A sample Recruit Attributes Chart, listing recruitment possibilities in the left-hand column, and desired attributes across the top row. From this chart, it’s easy to see that Candidate A and Candidate E make the best “fit” with regards to the qualities you want in a board member 



Once you have a sense of who you’re looking for, you need to know where to look. GCN Senior Affiliate Consultant Jack Beckford, in his work with individual nonprofits and at events like GCN’s recent Nonprofit Board Leadership Clinic and the Clayton Nonprofit Forum, encourages nonprofits to begin recruitment efforts with those closest to the organization. It helps, he says, to think in concentric circles, with your nonprofit at the center.

“In the first circle are your members and volunteers—those closest to your organization,” says Beckford. “Because they already have a strong relationship with you and your work, and have already made a commitment of time and energy to it, they are most likely to be receptive to your efforts and to make a good fit.”

“You may not be able to fill your board with close friends, but it’s always better if there’s an element of familiarity—if they know you, and you know them.” 

The next circle out are your donors and supporters. This pool already has knowledge of your organization and has helped out in a concrete way, meaning they’ve already made a connection and might be ready for a greater role. “You may not be able to fill your board with close friends, but it’s always better if there’s an element of familiarity: if they know you, and you know them,” says Beckford. (Though he’s sometimes asked if it’s better to get an outside perspective—someone unfamiliar with your methods, who might provide more critical assessment—Beckford thinks this underestimates your close allies: “If you’re dealing with responsible, intelligent people, they’re not going to become yes-men just because they’re friends of the organization.”)

The outer circles consist of contacts in your current board members’ networks (where the majority of your candidate ideas are likely to come up, as it’s typically the board’s responsibility to develop recruitment leads), followed by leaders and advocates working in the same issue area (those familiar with the work, but not necessarily your organization).

Beyond these circles of familiarity are areas Beckford compares to “internet dating” for board members: less reliable, but with the potential for an incredible match. That’s especially true if you know where to look: board member development programs such as the United Way’s V.I.P. initiative and the Atlanta Women’s Foundation’s “Women On Board;” online listings, including GCN’s own Opportunity Knocks, as well as professional sites like LinkedIn; parties and other events; and professional associations for those with the skills you prioritized through your Strategic Needs Assessment.

It also helps to create a job description detailing exactly what the recruit will be assisting with, and giving it to each existing board and staff member, as well as any close friend of the organization. That way, your lead-generators know exactly who to look for, and can provide a proper introduction on both sides.

Bringing them on board

Of course, all of this is just preparation for your real work with the board: empowering your organization to fulfill all the promise of its mission. From here, it’s up to you to develop a purposeful, intentional plan that takes advantage of all the skills and strengths your new board member possesses. For an idea of what an effective board member leadership plan looks like, and can accomplish, we’ve invited our friends at member nonprofit Moving in the Spirit to share the story of their successful board makeover.

(Board Chairs from top to bottom: Lawrence Kenny, Board Chair, Camp Twin Lakes; Helene Lollis, Board Chair, Junior Achievement of Georgia; Lionel Flax, Board Chair, Living Walls; Susan R. Bell, Board Chair, United Way of Greater Atlanta)

Marc Schultz is managing editor of Georgia Nonprofit NOW.

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