It's getting harder and harder for non-profits to find good board members


September 21, 1992|By LESTER S. PICKER

The chill winds of autumn are here, but it's not the cold weather that is sending shivers up and down the spines of non-profit agency leaders. No, these folks are looking around their board rooms and finding . . . well, there just not finding as much as they used to.

The fact is that good board members are getting harder to find than Cal Ripkin doubles. If you doubt it, just ask any non-profit board chairperson or executive director. Horror tales abound.

While the situation is near desperate at some local non-profits, it is not uniformly dismal. But, it is spotty. For example, white males are in relative abundance, although one might take issue with some of their qualifications to sit on a board of directors. But, just try to find a black, executive woman to sit on a needy board. Believe me, that's a challenge I know about first hand.

Nearly every minority professional I know is already on too many committees, boards, professional associations and business groups. Ask that person to help out on yet another deserving board and you frequently get an earful in response.

The truth is that nearly everyone is over-stressed nowadays. The most socially conscious people are those who feel most compelled to contribute something to the causes they hold dear to their heart. That often translates into two, three, even four nights a week out at board and committee meetings, trying to juggle three different causes. If one wants time for a family or a social life, one learns to set limits.

Part of the problem is that non-profit organizations have proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, in part due to severe government cutbacks. There are now more than 1 million non-profits looking for a few good people.

Then, too, potential board members worry about liability issues, insurance, strong-arming colleagues to raise funds and other pleasantries. Pretty soon, the supply of good board members is no longer adequate.

Of course, some boards always do well. These include the large art organizations, where a perk of board membership is the ability to rub elbows with people of influence. Some larger, well established non-profits have developed a board culture that tends to nurture good members.

But what of the smaller non-profits that cannot devote the time and energy, and may not have access, to cultivating the major players in the community? What can they do to grow a diverse, active and vibrant board? First, these organizations must get their house in order and themselves develop as strong a board as possible. By that I mean one that sets policies and operates at the policy level, leaving operations to staff.

Members of the board nominating committee should be direct and clear with the board's expectations for nominees. Is fund raising a major expectation? Is access to decision-makers? Help with events? Long range planning?

Aim to recruit some of the rising stars of the corporate community. The CEO of IBM cannot be on every board (and judging from his performance at United Way of America, you may not want him anyway). But, his rising lieutenants may be available. Hitch onto that star, run a tight, effective organization, and you have nurtured your own champion.

Don't ever let a board member sit idle for periods of time. We all feel good when we contribute something of ourselves. Create a short and long-range plan and use your board members to help grease its implementation.

Be persistent in your request to a nominee. Present a compelling case based on your mission and a passionate view of a better future for the community based on your organization's work.

Use your network to add diversity to your board, but only if the organization is serious about reaching out to all people. Too many boards are overwhelmingly white. While most boards I know want that to change, there needs to be an equal desire to really listen to and respect diverse viewpoints.

There's no doubt it is more difficult today to recruit capable board members. The greater challenge is to recruit them and nurture them in a way that grows a board culture of caring and service. That is the best recruitment device of all.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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