Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Want to Serve on a Board (But No Board Seems to Want Me)

I can recall a handful of times when I was directly approached by a person asking to serve on the boards of institutions where I was on staff.  It always caught me off-guard.  I guess it's because that somewhere along the line it was instilled in me (or maybe just implied) that one waited one's turn to be asked; that one's talents would be recognized and thus, sought.  As a result, I'm always a bit wary of the person who openly declares their desire to serve on a particular board.

Some of my reticence comes from knowing that there may be many criteria in use by the nominating or board development committee -- criteria that an eager volunteer may or may not meet.  The organization may be at a point where its current board needs to stabilize for a bit before adding new members or the current board might actually need to shrink in size.  The organization may have decided to wait on adding board members until its strategic plan was completed, knowing that the plan would surface new or different leadership directions.  And then there's the organizational culture with which board recruits need to mesh.   These are all factors that may be well understood internally, but may not cross the mind of the wannabe.

So, what's the harm in making one's intentions known? Consider that there are a very few boards where seats are sought after; the vast majority of nonprofit boards suffer for lack of talent.  Why wouldn't an organization want to cast a wide net?

Understanding that there is risk involved for both the seeker and the sought seems to me to be an important place to start.  For the seeker, a board appointment is not unlike a job search.  If one is serious, it seems logical that knowledge of an organization through hands-on voluntarism would be essential.  Knowing where one's skills match the organization's needs, and being able to articulate that, is another key ingredient.  Letting members of the nominating or board development committee know of your interest in serving can be helpful.  But, understand that your name might enter a pool of candidates and that it could take some time to be considered for board service.  Understand, also, that the call may never come.

For the organization, the process and the criteria by which board candidates are identified and selected ought to be as transparent as possible.  Transparency affords the opportunity to cast the widest net.  Process and criteria should be discussed openly in board and committee meetings, in membership communications, in any forum where the organization talks about voluntarism (newsletters, websites, etc.).  Don't have a process?  My advice is to develop one ASAP or continue to run the risk of electing anyone who may or may not be interested in board service.  (I think it's been proven thousands of times that people hate to say "no" to a worthy nonprofit even when they should say "no, I'm not a good fit."

Photo:  make your choice by orangejack

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