Applying Executive Search Principles to Board Building

Laura Gassner Otting
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In any thriving garden, planning is evident. Plants that complement each other grow in neighboring plots, nutrients are delivered after assessing the needs of the soil and climate, and flowers are chosen which will bloom at different points throughout the year. Your board should be no different. If you lack diversity, if individual board members take on high burnout activities year round, and if you aren’t supporting and energizing them regularly, you will be left with weeds.

In the talent business, we like to think about ideal executive level hires as ones who meet the functional expertise required in the job while also having a mission affinity to the work of the nonprofit, and who bring necessary local knowledge or networks that make their current geography attractive. It is the center of these concentric circles of function, mission, and geography that guide our research when developing an outreach strategy for any search. Rather than just doing this for executive level searches, a nonprofit can apply this strategy to their board recruitment efforts as well.

The first step is to inventory your current board by creating a grid that lays out members by function, mission, and geography, as well as areas of interest and term limits. You may find that you have six accountants, but all of them are rolling off the board in six months. Or you might find that you have no community members, even though you have a number of high net worth individuals. Knowing where you are going starts with understanding where you currently stand.

Second, figure out your pitch. Of course you want people who will bring access to resources, but so does everyone else. What will set your cause apart is what else the board member might be able to exercise in their volunteer role. Again, go to your grid and consider whether you need a lawyer with a personal interest or professional practice in poverty alleviation in the Midwest who can advise on scaling to a new site in Chicago. Or a party planner with a network of arts patrons in New York City who can expand your major gifts program through more compelling events. The reasons why you want these individuals, because of their skills sets or interests, will make your cause more compelling and make your recruitment easier, and will ensure that the overall work of fulfilling your strategic plan is divided up amongst your now broader and more diverse board.