Find Stronger Board Candidates by Asking “Why”

Sometimes associations are so pleased to have people willing to sit on their boards that they don't ask why they're willing. Digging into that question can make board recruitment more effective.

When it comes to board recruitment, don’t take yes for an answer.

Every association wants to have people who are interested in a seat on the board. The larger and more diverse the pool of interested individuals, the more opportunities the association has to set and meet meaningful strategic goals. But associations may not be doing all they could to understand why potential board members say “yes” to the opportunity—and then use that understanding to guide volunteer recruitment.

In his new book, Stop the Nonprofit Board Blame Game, speaker and consultant Hardy Smith discusses a host of reasons why boards can become dysfunctional. One of them goes all the way back to the recruitment process. “Knowing why an individual says ‘yes’ to a board position—or why they say ‘no’—there’s lessons to be learned there,” Smith says.

A key issue is that the reasons for that “yes” may not be in alignment with the board’s goals. Many of those reasons can be self-serving: Candidates may want to improve their professional standing, expand their social circle, or get a little extra attention onstage at the next conference. But even more altruistic stated ambitions merit more scrutiny, Smith says.

“One common answer [to why they want to serve] is, ‘I just want to give back,’” he says. “I don’t pooh-pooh that, but I would suggest digging deeper.”

To do that, whoever is doing the asking needs to know what the board is looking for—the skill sets, fit, diversity, strategic thinking, and other elements that are important to agenda-setting. Moreover, Smith says, nominating committees should treat responses as usable data. The true reasons for saying “yes” can speak to how the association is perceived.

Don’t accept ‘I don’t have time’ at face value.

Hardy Smith

The same goes for the times you hear “no.” In the book, Smith lists some of the most common reasons potential leaders don’t want to engage: a disorganized board without clear goals, negative perceptions of the current leadership, and a sense that “not much would be accomplished.”

Of course, a board member who passes on your ask isn’t likely to say those things so directly. “The most frequent answer most organizations will get is, ‘I don’t have the time,’” Smith says. “Don’t accept not having time at face value. It could be true, but you need to confirm how true it is. There are so many people who may be ideally qualified to serve your organization, and ‘I don’t have the time’ is a polite way to turn you down without saying no.”

Regardless of how deftly you uncover the real reasons why somebody is accepting or passing on your request to join or run for your board, Smith recommends that nominating committees do two things. First, they should have candid conversations about the reasons they’re hearing. The responses will help make the recruitment process more successful the next time around.

Second, don’t try to turn a “no” into a “yes.”

“If they’ve already said why they can’t do the job, sometimes we pull back our expectations, telling them that the workload isn’t that bad or that they don’t have to engage so much,” Smith says. “When you do that, you start diminishing the significance of serving on the board.”

And worse, that kind of arm-twisting can make it harder to persuade that person to participate at another time. “Just say, ‘Can we come back and have this conversation again in the future?’” Smith says. “If you’re a candidate, the association has indicated they really value you. And it leaves the door open. Rather than losing a potential good board member, you’ve done some advance recruiting for the future.”

How do you uncover and track the reasons why volunteers do—or don’t—join your association’s board? Share your experiences in the comments.

(marekuliasz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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