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How to Build a Board of Directors for Your Nonprofit

Building a board of directors is a fundamental step when it comes to starting a nonprofit. Not only is it an integral part of your organization's governance, you will also need a board for the filing process to officially establish your nonprofit in your state and on the federal level. 

Building a nonprofit board of directors is exciting, but it is important to take the time and care to do it right! In this article, we want to cover some of the most important points when it comes to your new board of directors.

Today, we will answer these questions:

Let’s get started!

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What is a Nonprofit Board of Directors and Why is it Important?

A nonprofit board of directors is the governing body of an organization. It is made up of a group of people that meet regularly or semi-regularly to discuss and make decisions for the organization that they serve. In a nonprofit’s case, these people are unpaid volunteers.

They are responsible for overseeing (or directly participating in) the activities of a nonprofit, strategic decision-making, reviewing effectiveness, and more. They focus on strategy, accountability, and oversight.

Some of the responsibilities of a board of directors are:

  • Ensure that the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance their mission

  • Ensure that the nonprofit obeys laws and regulations, as well as following its own bylaws

  • Ensure that the nonprofit is engaging in activities that advance its mission

  • Ensure that decisions are made with the best interest of the nonprofit in mind

Nonprofit boards are an important part of the overall health of an organization. In addition, most states require you to have a board established before you apply for incorporation, as well as the IRS. 

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What are the Different Types of Boards?

While every nonprofit organization will need a board of directors, there are two different types that organizations use depending on their size and their needs. You can choose between:

A Working Board 

A working board is very hands-on, and more involved in daily operations. They are essentially unpaid staff members. They do the bulk of the work for your organization and carry heavy responsibilities like fundraising, project management, and more. 

An example of a member on a working board is a treasurer who also is the accountant, a fundraiser chair who also applies for grants and sponsorships, or a communications chair that also handles marketing, social media, etc. 

For this type of board, it is vital that the people on your board are committed to doing the work, not just attending meetings and making decisions. This type of board is common with new or small nonprofits that do not have the resources to hire professional staff for daily operations. 

A Governing Board

A governing board is more of the typical idea of what a board of directors is. They oversee operations, finances, legal issues, and so on. They usually have outside careers and participate solely in meetings and decision making.

Governing boards are common in larger, established nonprofits that have paid staff to perform daily tasks. They exist to oversee and ensure everything is running smoothly, rather than to participate in routine operations. 

Board Sizes

Board sizes vary from nonprofit to nonprofit, but it is recommended to not have a board larger than 15 members, because it can be difficult to keep everyone and engaged and make sure all voices are heard. On the other hand, a board with too few members may be limiting the diversity and perspective that more members would bring to the table. 

Essentially, a board should be large enough to get the work done but small enough to where everyone can easily communicate, make decisions, and work together as a single governing body. 

Regardless of size, it is recommended that you have an odd number of members so that decisions do not come to a tie without a deciding voter. Please note that the IRS generally requires at least three board members for each nonprofit. 

When deciding on your board size, keep in mind the size of your organization and your needs. If you are a smaller-scale nonprofit, 5 or 7 members should suffice. If you are a larger-scale nonprofit that needs a lot of strategic planning and decision making, going up to 9-13 might be right for you. 

It is up to you to decide what will be best for your organization! 

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What is the Recruitment Process?

The recruiting process for a nonprofit board of directors is similar to the hiring process. You are looking for leaders who have skill sets and perspectives that match your nonprofits mission, cause, and values. 

However, as a new nonprofit, you will be “hiring” multiple candidates. This is an exciting step in starting a nonprofit, but it is important to build the right board so you can help ensure success in the future.

By recruiting multiple candidates, you should focus on building a team with diverse and relevant skill sets, expertise, education, and connections. Successful boards are built thoughtfully with these things in mind. Your board is a building block for your nonprofit, so make it a strong one!

Define Your Needs

Knowing exactly what type of profile you need to build your board will help give you a sense of direction during recruitment. We suggest that you do a needs assessment of your organization to establish the type of people that will be best for your board.

Identifying which roles you need to be filled is an important step to complete before you start recruitment. You do not want to end up with two similar profiles that would end up doing the same job. Needs assessments will show you who you need and why. 

You may need things like tax advice, human resource skills, event management help, or policy know-how. It is important to try to find a balance between candidates that are passionate about your cause but also have the skills and backgrounds to fulfill your needs. 

This is tricky, because while passion and motivation are crucial, so is expertise and experience

By defining your needs, you will have a better chance of finding the right candidate that balances passion and need.

Who to Recruit

When choosing your candidates, there are a lot of things to consider. You want to make sure that you are choosing the right people to help build your organization from the ground up. As we mentioned before, background and expertise is crucial. However, personal characteristics are a big factor of candidacy as well. 

We suggest that you consider the following characteristics when making your choice:

  • Passion. People that really care about your cause. By being invested on a deeper level, the relationship and commitment to your organization will flourish.
  • Diversity. You want people that have different backgrounds, specialities, and ideas to help build a well-rounded board.

  • Strong work ethic. Dependable people that are able to set and achieve goals will help you create an efficient and reliable board. Knowing you can count on your board members to show up and do the work is key!

  • Attitude. It is no secret that positive attitudes create a good atmosphere and working environment. Finding candidates that are team-oriented and can collaborate well will not only create a positive culture on your board, but will also facilitate decision making.

  • Flexibility. While certain candidates may be very invested in your cause, if it seems they don’t have the time to commit to your organization they may not be the best choice. Board meetings are important, and so is attendance. Finding candidates that are flexible and have enough time to commit to serving on your board will be helpful in the long run. 

Every nonprofit is different, and so are their board members. It is ultimately up to you to decide what characteristics you will need, but we hope this helps steer you in the right direction!

Keep Diversity in Mind

When recruiting and selecting your board members, it is important to keep diversity in mind. If you have a group of board members that all have similar backgrounds, interests, careers, or education, you may be limiting yourself because the ideas you come up with may all be quite similar. 

Having a board with diverse perspectives and backgrounds will help bring new ideas, experiences, and even different contacts and community members to your nonprofit. With a diversity of experiences and expertise, you can build a stronger board with a solid foundation. 

A diverse board can help in decision making, because having a range of different perspectives will allow you to see the bigger picture of potential opportunity or risk. 

Diversity can also help you become more sensitive to cultural differences and community needs, as well as having a strong capacity to recruit new and talented board members and supporters. Having a board that is not diverse can make it very difficult in the long run to recruit and expand an existing board. 

When your board accurately reflects the community or cause you serve, you will have a better understanding of what is needed to advance your cause. 

Recruit Your Board

Now that you know what kind of candidates you are looking for, you can get started recruiting them!

If you are serious about starting a nonprofit in the near future or are already in the process, we suggest that you plan ahead for recruiting your first board of directors. You can start compiling names of potential candidates, thinking about what they have to offer your organization and if they would be interested in serving. 

Once you are ready to go, it is time to get the word out! A board can be a huge help when it comes to starting a nonprofit, so reaching out to people in your community or even your personal circle to gage interest is wise. Referrals and word-of-mouth can help you find potential colleagues, volunteers, community activists, and philanthropic business people who may be interested in joining. 

However, please note that conflicts of interest must be avoided. Hiring a family member, for example, may be tricky because emotions can sometimes get in the way of strategic planning and decision-making. Asking someone who may be a great candidate, but is involved in another nonprofit, is something to avoid as well. That being said, if you are confident that people in your community, personal, and professional life would be good candidates, reach out to them!

Since you are a new nonprofit, you may need to consult your local volunteer center, city website, or community centers to look for potential candidates. There are also many online resources including Board Match, Board Net USA, and The Bridgespan Group. If you are active on social media, check out LinkedIn for Nonprofits to help find potential candidates.

When reaching out to potential candidates, personal, face-to-face requests are recommended. Rather than just a phone call, setting a meeting (if possible) will help set a good precedent for asking them to participate on your board. 

Be positive when approaching your candidates! Make sure they know that they have been chosen specifically by your organization, and it can be a wonderful opportunity for not only your nonprofit, but for the candidate as well.

When recruiting potential candidates, be sure that you are being upfront about the time commitment. Knowing exactly what will be expected of them will allow them to make an informed decision. 

As you are starting a new nonprofit, the next steps will be up to you on how you would like to orient and organize your new board. Check out this cheat sheet from BoardSource to find out more about the recruitment process! 

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When it comes to building your nonprofit’s board, we hope answering these questions has given you a better understanding of the process. We wish you all the best with building your new nonprofit!

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