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Starting a Nonprofit Board from Scratch

As a new nonprofit, one of the most important things you need to establish is a board of directors. 

The topic of Nonprofit Board Engagement was discussed in City of Light’s second Round Table discussion.  Round Table is a free online forum where nonprofit administrators can have an open discussion around issues and solutions to everyday affairs within the nonprofit world.

When starting a board from scratch, go to people you trust and ask for recommendations via word of mouth.  Then only invite people you believe will further your mission.

Nonprofit Board

Make sure you put more emphasis on the quality of your board members than the quantity…  

You’re better off with a few empty chairs than a room that’s filled with people who aren’t completely invested in your nonprofit!

Start recruiting your board members in 5 steps…


1. Set Clear & Measurable Expectations

When recruiting board members, lay out these expectations for them:

Time commitments:  For example, have each member attend 6 meetings per year that last an average of 1 hour and have each member attend at least 1 main fundraising event each year.

 Responsibilities:  Look over agenda items for each meeting and assign tasks and responsibilities based each person’s skills, interests, and capabilities.

 Attendance and board policies:  Review and compromise on policies collectively as a group.

2. Improve Communication

 Meet with board members on a monthly basis:  Take them out for coffee or lunch and send them personal emails or notes.  Do whatever it takes to get to know your board members better!

 Establish board training for new board members:  If you are extremely busy, hire someone, or find a willing volunteer, that can act as a liaison between you and your board and can keep the engagement going!

3. Be Purposeful & Deliberate

Care more about bringing in engaged board members than filling empty space. You need to find people that want to be there and believe in your mission. Figure out what your board members are already skilled at and what skills they have to offer.

 Make sure you’re asking your board members what their needs are! If their needs aren’t met, they won’t be wholeheartedly engaged.  They should connect directly or identify with the story of the beneficiaries you serve.

4. Give Your Board a Purpose

In a traditional for-profit company, a board represents the shareholders. However, in a not-for-profit, a board represents the beneficiaries and community members they serve.  

 The old model of finding board members:  Fill spots based on skills or profession (i.e., CPA, lawyer, marketer, etc.) and level of influence within the community.

 A new model of finding board members:  Find engaged, excited people that already care about your cause who potentially have fewer skills, but are of better use to you!

5. Tailor Your Message to each Member

Having a split board (where some members are engaged and some aren’t) can really have a negative effect on everyone. Truly excited people will serve you better in the long run!

Having 3 really excited board members is better than have 10 that aren’t engaged.

  3 questions that can help you vet a new board member:

  1. Why do you care?
  2. What skills do you have that you’re willing to share?
  3. How much time do you have to dedicate to our cause?

 Other ways to engage your board:

Try to invest time in getting to know them personally. Keep that connection going. Get time face to face with them. Ask them what they enjoy about being on your board. Ask them their opinion on how things could be better.

Your board wants to feel useful! Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and find people to fill the gaps but who also share the same passion and excitement you have for your cause.

 Make sure you’re using their time wisely:  

Don’t add agenda points to the board meeting that provide no added value to the group. Instead, aim to add agenda points that give your board members decisions to make, so they feel useful! See that their professional skills are being utilized (if that’s what they prefer!).


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