LeadingAge Magazine · September-October 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 05

Recruiting Your Next Great Board Member

September 18, 2017 | by Dianne Molvig

Nonprofit providers are modernizing their searches for new board members, looking further afield in the search for more diverse, strategy-focused boards.

Recruiting a new board member presents a dilemma: You want to bring in new blood and fresh eyes to help your organization adapt and thrive in a changing world. But you’re also looking for someone who will help your organization stay true to its long-time identity, mission and values.

Today, finding the right board member requires new selection criteria and recruitment methods, says Rick Stiffney, president/CEO of Mennonite Health Services (MHS), Goshen, IN, which offers consulting services to nonprofit organizations.

Gone are the days when board members were merely “representational,” he says—that is, coming from the group with which a LeadingAge organization was affiliated, usually a religious entity. In the 1980s, a shift occurred toward seeking directors who have specific areas of expertise.

“In the 21st century,” Stiffney says, “we’re moving toward giving more attention to what kinds of perspectives we’re engaging in in the boardroom, rather than what types of expertise we have. That expertise typically is now already on the bench in senior management.”

The goal is to seek board candidates who have diverse perspectives, Stiffney explains. He’s talking about more than what typically springs to mind upon hearing the word “diversity.” As he defines it, diversity applies not only to gender, race and ethnicity, but also to life experience, knowledge base, socioeconomic standing, personal characteristics, worldview and age.

The advantage of board diversity, according to numerous studies, is that it fuels innovation, Stiffney reports. “But I also think diversity tends to drive deeper wisdom in a board’s judgments,” he says. “The catch is to hold dearly to your core convictions and mission, while also engaging a diverse range of perspectives on the board.”

A Broader View

Some years ago, Baptist preachers comprised most of the board of the Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home in Washington, DC. Today its board members come not only from the church, but also from several area businesses, educational institutions and community groups.

Stoddard Baptist photo
Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home is expanding the range of its
recruitment of board members, and is working to recruit younger
people as well. Pictured, (left to right): Juanita Thompson, former
secretary, and Binkley Garrison, chair, Stoddard Baptist Home
Foundation, and Muriel Wade, secretary, Stoddard Baptist
Nursing Home.

“The makeup has changed, and there’s a push to make sure that change continues,” says Steven Nash, president/CEO of the Stoddard Baptist Home Foundation. “If you stay within only the Baptists or whatever your affiliation is, you have a narrowed focus. You get a homogenous board. Everybody looks and talks the same.”

When Stoddard Baptist needs a new board member, it reaches out to the local Baptist network, other religious communities, social groups, community organizations, and business networks such as various Chambers of Commerce and economic councils in the Washington area.

Not only does building that kind of diversity widen a board’s view in making decisions, but it’s also necessary in order to “stay connected with the community,” Nash explains. “We want people to know about us, so we need to have board members from different areas of the community to make that happen.”

Stoddard Baptist’s board is beginning to explore ways to recruit younger directors in order to widen age diversity on the board. Few LeadingAge organizations may be thinking about this yet, but Stiffney believes it’s a good idea. Those in the 30-something age group can offer a key benefit.

“They know a lot about the younger workforce,” he says. “They know how young people are connecting and how their loyalties to institutions are or are not being formed.”

Those in senior management usually aren’t in this age cohort, Stiffney points out, so they don’t have an insider’s view. Yet, appealing to younger workers is one of the major challenges facing employers today. A younger board member can contribute insights to the discussion.

The Personal Side

When searching for new board members, the management and board at Horizon House in Seattle, WA, look for needed expertise and the types of diversity discussed above. They strive to “get beyond the professional side,” says Sara McVey, CEO, by getting to know personal aspects of the candidates. What sorts of interests and experiences do they have?

Horizon House photo
Horizon House works hard to get to know potential board candidates
personally, to be sure they mesh with the organization’s mission;
candidates also meet residents and staff. Pictured: Board Chair
Julius Debro (center), with residents Jack Anderson and Jeannette

“A lot of times many of our residents have those same interests or have done some of the same things,” she says. “That makes for stronger connections between the trustees and our residents.”

In the recruiting process, McVey and her colleagues try to get to know as much as possible about board candidates, personally and professionally. Then there’s the matter of asking each candidate that overarching question: Why do you want to be on our board? The answer can reveal much about a candidate’s true motives.

“We make sure these folks really want to do this and can serve on behalf of our residents, adapt to new demands and help us innovate for the future,” McVey says, “That’s a tall order for a non-paying gig.”

Personal traits enter into a board’s effectiveness as well, Stiffney says. Board members must be people who can live with ambiguity, and they need to be able to consider multiple points of view. “Some personalities are not wired for that,” he says.

He also notes that in today’s environment, a board’s work entails more than merely authorizing decisions. They must engage in strategic thinking, which requires directors to have “a readiness to engage in learning and wrestling with counterpoints,” Stiffney says. “I refer to that as the feistiness of engagement.”

Diversity of personalities can add vitality to a board. Stiffney expresses this notion in terms of “lions” and “hound dogs,” a metaphor he credits to Cathy Trower, president of Trower and Trower, a governance consulting firm in Weare, NH. Organizations often woo the lions—the movers and shakers—to sit on their boards. But Trower suggests boards could use more hound dogs.

“Lions can roar when they need to,” Stiffney explains. “But today we need people who are patient and can reflect and sniff out solutions. We need both types on the board.”

Recruitment Strategies

In recruiting new directors, high-functioning boards follow a few key practices, according to Stiffney. For one, they have active governance committees that anticipate board needs and build an ongoing list of strong candidates for future board positions.

“We have a roster of dozens of names for our national board,” he says. “Our governance committee periodically reviews that list to keep deleting and adding.” Also, strong candidates likely are much in demand, so it may be wise to get into their queue so they’ll consider joining your board when they’re available down the line.

Lifespace photo
Lifespace Communities uses a professional recruiter to do nationwide
searches for board openings. Candidates visit Lifespace sites and go through
a process that can take as much as 9 months.

A second practice of high-functioning boards, Stiffney says, is getting both the CEO and the board actively engaged in interacting with potential board candidates. Too often, he sees either the CEO or the board “on their lonesome scaring up names,” he says. Both should get into the action.

That’s how it’s done at Lifespace Communities, West Des Moines, IA, which hires a professional recruiter to do a nationwide search to fill board openings. Once the recruiter hands over a slate of candidates, “I do personal calls with each,” says president/CEO Sloan Bentley, who’s also active on the governance committee.

After that initial screening, the governance committee holds in-person interviews with selected candidates. These prospects visit and tour 1 or 2 Lifespace Communities (which are located in 7 states) before a final smaller set of candidates meet individually with the full board.

“It’s a 9-month process to select and bring on a new board member,” Bentley says. “The goal is to get to know candidates very well, not only their experience, but also how they’re going to work with management and other board members.”

A third best practice in board recruitment is to articulate clearly what the board’s function is, including a written job description. Coupled with that, the board needs to present a well-defined picture of the organization’s mission, core values and so on “to demonstrate to potential candidates that your organization has its act together,” Stiffney says.

To attract strong board candidates, you must be a strong company, agrees LaVerne Epp, board chair at Lifespace Communities. “Your company has to sell itself,” he says. Do that by conveying a focused sense of purpose in what your organization is doing and what its goals are.

“One of our other selling features,” Epp adds, “is that we look for active board members. We want people who are willing to do the work, and we want them to know their opinions matter.”

Courting Candidates

One of the most important steps in attracting board candidates is to have them pay a visit, McVey believes. But that’s not solely for the purpose of meeting the existing board and management. “We have them sit down with a couple of residents to have lunch or a cup of coffee,” she says.

She also makes sure they meet staff, and not just the front desk staff or marketing team. Have them talk with caregivers, maintenance people and housekeepers, McVey suggests.

Such a visit presents a board candidate with the big picture of your organization, including those who are being served and those who have diverse roles in providing that service. “At that point,” McVey says, “you can see if the board candidate is getting engaged and excited” or shows a lack of genuine interest.

Oftentimes, the process of coming up with a list of potential new board members comes down to the “people who know people” strategy. One way Stiffney sees organizations widening their search is by hosting meet-and-greets.

For instance, in some cities, nonprofit organizations of various types come together to host events for area professionals who “get wine and cheese and a 5-minute stand-up conversation about what the organization does,” Stiffney explains. Also, that can be an effective way to reach out to younger professionals who might not otherwise be on your radar, or you on theirs.

One of the hurdles to attracting younger board members is that those in the millennial generation dislike making long-term commitments, Stiffney notes, so a 3-year term on your board may seem daunting.

Instead, he suggests inviting them to serve for just a year on a board committee to get a taste of what your organization is about. “It’s an opportunity to learn,” Stiffney says, “and it knocks down one barrier to entry” to potential board involvement.

Indeed, having tomorrow’s possible board members serve on a committee first is a sound strategy no matter the age of the candidate. The committee serves as a training ground and gives the organization a chance to gauge the person’s enthusiasm.

At Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home, most directors start out as committee members. “That gives us the ability to select,” Nash says, “and they can select as well, to see if they want to be more involved.”

Dianne Molvig is a writer who lives in Madison, WI.