Board succession Part 1: Finding new board members

There are few more important tasks facing a board than finding and recruiting new members. And it is a task made no less difficult by the fact that a regular changeover of members is not only inevitable but often desirable.

A stale board is in danger of losing its focus and while you can sometimes reinvigorate a board by retraining or inspiring existing members, seeking new members is often the best answer.

Even in the case of a well-run, effective and stable board, members will leave from time to time so it is important to have a recruitment strategy in place at all times.

In past times board vacancies were often filled following a quick flick through existing members' contact books. Not surprisingly, this time-honoured and relatively painless method would generally elicit a list of familiar and hopefully reliable prospects. However, the current era demands more of community organisations and the boards that govern them. Recruitment strategies need to ensure that the board is representative, responsive and consistently effective. The board needs to reflect the needs and interests of the group's members, offer skills and expertise that will allow them to navigate the terrain, and respond swiftly and productively to change.

Step One – Identifying the gaps

The first step in the search for new board members is to think about what your organisation wants to achieve in the next one to three years. These directions should already have been defined if your group has a strategic plan.

You will then need to think about what skills may be required to help achieve those goals. For example, if the organisation is planning to undertake a major building program, then someone on the board with expertise and experience in the building industry or major project management would be desirable. If an enhanced internet presence is a key objective, then someone with a technology background may be appropriate.

You will then need to assess what skills are already present on the board, and where the gaps are.

In summary, you should think about:

  1. What are the key objectives for the group over the next one to three years?
  2. What skills are needed to assist the staff/volunteers/group to achieve these objectives?
  3. What skills do current board members offer in these areas?
  4. What skills will depart with the retiring board member/s?
  5. Where are the gaps?

Step Two – Assessing the existing board

Once you have worked out what skills are needed on your board and what cannot be filled by existing members, you need to think about some other aspects of your existing board and how well it is currently serving your community group.

Think about:

  • Is your board the right size?

    As community groups change and grow, so too do the requirements of the board. Start-up groups may need only a handful of board members, while expanding groups may need a good deal more. When undertaking a recruitment process you should assess whether your board needs to be expanded or contracted.

  • How balanced is the board?

    Is there a good mix of skills and interests? Is there a gender balance? If not, the recruitment process is the best time to address any shortcomings.

  • How representative is the board?

    Does your board include different voices? Does it have members drawn from the groups the organisation is set up to serve – e.g. if it is a disability group does the board include people with disabilities? If the membership includes people from a variety of age groups, does your board represent this diversity? (More information about this topic is included below and in the Diversity section of the Tools and Resources Centre.)

Step Three – Determine what other qualities are required

Once you have identified the sorts of skills and experience your board requires, you will need to take into account other desirable qualities that will help to build a harmonious and productive board.

Board membership requires a significant contribution of time, creativity, patience and – in some cases – money. Other desirable qualities can include:

  • An ability to work cooperatively

    Although diversity of viewpoints should be actively encouraged on boards, it is important to know how to work cooperatively and reach consensus on key issues. In assessing prospective members, it might help to watch them in other settings or even at a social occasion – do they listen and take account of others' views? Are they able to avert conflict by developing creative solutions that are inclusive of a range of viewpoints?

  • A personal commitment to the organisation's mission

    People join boards for a variety of reasons – because they're asked, because they are hoping to boost their professional resumes, because they want to improve their standing in the community, because they want to "give back" to their community, and so on. While none of these reasons should preclude a potential board member, it is essential that board members are committed to the group's mission and are prepared to work to achieve its objectives.

  • A sense of humour

    Voluntary service is important but it should also be fun. The ability to laugh and use humour appropriately, especially in meetings, can help defuse tense situations and bring members closer together. A board that can laugh at the right times is usually one that can move on and take a balanced, more objective approach to its decision-making.

  • An ability and willingness to donate (money/time/expertise/contacts/influence)

    In America it is assumed that anybody elected to a board will also be at the top of the list of financial donors. In Australia, a financial contribution may not be so important but the board member must be able to provide their time, expertise, contacts and influence.

Step Four – Focus on diversity

Diversity is a good thing, both for the organisation and the community. If you want to bring in new perspectives and new voices, think about whether your board composition really reflects the community it represents. Should you be including people from non-English-speaking backgrounds? Indigenous people? Younger people? Older people? People with a disability? More women?

If you're dealing with the whole community, it's only reasonable to have representation from across the community – and your board may need to make some changes to accommodate the new voices. If you're including people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, for example, you may need to consider getting meeting papers translated, arranging for an interpreter or allowing more time for items during meetings to allow people to catch up.

You also need to ask yourself if you should set aside board seats for representatives of your organisation's membership or clientele. Groups that work for people with disabilities, for example, need strong and significant representation on the board by people with disabilities if they are not to lose touch with what their clients really want.

When pursuing a diversity strategy, it is important to avoid tokenism – this is easily achieved if you ensure that all board members are treated equally; that they have appropriate skills and expertise and a strong commitment to the group, and that they share equally in board responsibilities.

Inviting a variety of viewpoints, all valued equally, may make decision-making a little more difficult but it will definitely make it more open and responsive to the needs of the organisation and its constituency.

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