RECRUITING THE RIGHT BOARD MEMBERS
By Kathy La Plante | From Main Street Story of the Week | February 7, 2013 |
It’s a month before your annual meeting and buried on the agenda for your board of directors’ meeting is, “slate of officers and filling board vacancies.” After taking care of all old business, the board has scheduled less than 15 minutes to select the upcoming year’s officers and identify people they think would be willing to serve a three-year term on the board. The results of chaotically selecting board members could result in: spotty attendance at monthly board meetings; recurring vacancies on the board; disregard of board term limits; lack of participation by board members in projects and activities; and a lack of leadership turnover.
These are all warning signs that will impact the effectiveness of the organization and program. Annually, boards experience a change in membership, in the selection of new officers, and the addition of new board members. It is at this critical juncture that Main Street programs can make mistakes that will affect the program for years. It’s time to be strategic about board development.
Recruiting the best and most appropriate board members for Main Street should be a high priority. Whether this is a task handled by your organization committee or by the board of directors, the job of board recruitment needs a detailed plan, with tasks, timelines, and responsibilities, just like any other project in your work plan. Building a board that has the skill set needed to advance the work of the organization and that truly believes in the mission and vision of cannot happen in 30 days. In fact, this process should take place year round.
STEPS TO RECRUIT AND RETAIN AN EFFECTIVE BOARD
Appoint a nominating committee. The nominating committee can be a subcommittee of the board of directors or a function of the organization committee. It should have at least three members—two that serve on the board, and a third member who represents a community-wide perspective. The third individual on this committee should be chosen based on his or her ability to look outside the organization and expand its leadership base. The committee is responsible for analyzing the needs of the board, cultivating new leadership, and preparing nominations. If a member’s term is up, the board shouldn’t assume that that he or she will automatically be renewed for another term. A review of the member’s attendance and participation over the past year should be standard practice, as well as a call from one of the committee members to ask if he or she still has the time, commitment, and interest in serving for another full term. Any members being recommended for a second term are the best candidates to step into one of the officer positions on the board.
Draw up a clearly defined board member job description. When recruiting people to a board of directors, you have to know what you are recruiting them to do, and they must know their obligations before they say YES. The basic expectation for a board member is attendance at meetings. If the bank president has a bank board meeting on the same day and at the same time as your board meeting, there is no point in asking him to serve on the board. It is also important to reassure any board prospects that you aren’t asking them to make a lifetime commitment. Strong local leaders often serve on two or more boards at one time.
A one page-job description should succinctly lay out the rest of your expectations. Collectively, the board of directors assumes legal and philosophical responsibility for the Main Street program, and establishes policy for all of its activities. Board members provide leadership for the program, participate in committee assignments, and serve as advocates for the commercial district’s revitalization efforts. They represent the larger view of why downtown revitalization is crucial for the entire community. Job responsibilities will include guiding the overall direction of the program. And for any nonprofit Main Street program, fund raising is a serious board responsibility—to play that down in the board member job description will be detrimental to the organization.Other expectations should include:
- Willingness to spend 10 hours a month on board activities;
- Being good ambassadors for the organization;
- Acting as consensus builders;
- Serving as chair of a committee;
- Making a meaningful financial contribution;
- Mastering how the organization works which begins by attending a new board member orientation.
To emphasize the commitment board members need to make to the organization, some Main Street programs use board contracts that outline the duties listed above. The contract is signed by the new board member and the board chair. Download a sample board contract from our Solution Center.
Do a board profile assessment. The profile assessment is a basic checklist with categories of expertise that a Main Street organization may be seeking. Board members check off categories that apply to them from a list that includes historic preservation, leadership, personnel, planning, marketing, writing, banking, public safety, politics, artist, fund raiser, etc. The board also needs be profiled by age, sex, and diversity. Ideally, the makeup of the board should reflect the makeup of the community. Another common balance that a board should have are equal parts of wealth (people who have it, or know where to find it); wisdom (visionaries and experienced and respected leaders who are problem solvers); and workers (people who love to roll up their sleeves and give generously of their time to work on projects).
After all board members have completed the form, they are entered into one matrix. The gaps will become apparent, so the nominating committee can use the matrix as a basis to identify candidates in the community who could provide the necessary expertise or representation. Check out our Solution Center for a sample matrix.
Cultivate new board members. Main Street programs provide ideal conditions for the cultivation of potential board members. Each committee has a specific work plan with a variety of projects. Volunteers can become involved at many levels, from the volunteer who chooses to help only with the downtown clean-up day to the person who agrees to lead the six-month long market analysis process or serve on a committee year round. Get to know your volunteers and their interests and encourage them to become even more engaged.
Who should be considered as board members? Major investors in the program, civic leaders, downtown business owners or managers, industrial leaders, school systems, civic organizations, health care professionals, city or regional leadership program graduates, tourism entities, and residents. As the program focus changes over the years, the organization will desire different partnerships and skill sets. Seek people who can make a significant contribution to the commercial district and to your organization.
Potential board members should know that they may be asked to step into a position of leadership, serving as an officer of the board, perhaps even as board chair. This sets an expectation before the individual agrees to serve on the board. Unfortunately, what happens in some communities is that, at the last board meeting of the year, the chair steps down, and the vice chair announces that he or she never agreed to move into the chair position. The organization finds itself with no chair or vice chair, and the board scrambles to talk someone into taking the position. Instead of electing a chair who realizes that this role will likely require twice as much time as being a board member, you’ve elected someone who may not stick with the position, as it may become too overwhelming for them.
Develop a list of prospects and contact them. Talk with your prospects about their past involvement with the commercial district and tell them how much it has been appreciated. Gather personal data, such as professional background, education, other affiliations, and other board services. Describe your vision for downtown and ask what their vision is. Ask how they think they could use their skills to help reach a common vision. Explain the organization’s expectations for board members, and then give the individual time to consider a move into a more prominent leadership position by serving on the board.
Develop board orientation and ongoing education. After you’ve elected new members to the board, orient them in every aspect of your downtown revitalization strategies and the organization: its mission, vision, financial background, work plans, bylaws, planning documents, strategic planning goals, etc. A team of staff and volunteers should conduct the orientation. The board chair can provide an overview and history of the organization; the executive director can explain the Main Street Four-Point Approach® methodology. The treasurer should review the past year’s budget versus actual, as well as explain the monthly financial statements by line item, on both the income and expense side. Board members are responsible for the overall fiscal health of the organization and for raising funds, so they must have a keen grasp of the financials from the very first board meeting they attend. Be careful not to assume that everyone knows how to read a financial statement. Each committee chair can also participate in the training by presenting their work plan projects. It will take at least three to four hours to present all of this information thoroughly.
A board member’s experience during the first year often determines whether he or she will remain. Communicate with freshman board members between board meetings and encourage them to express their thoughts and ideas at meetings. Assign more experienced board members to serve as mentors for new members during the first few months. This added attention to your new board members will assure they hit the board running, rather than sitting quietly and observing how things work for their first year.
Evaluate the board. Each year, the board should evaluate its performance. Reflecting back on the year will help the board and staff focus on improvements for the coming year. Conducting an official evaluation also shows that the organization takes its responsibility seriously, especially in the eyes of funders. The board chair or a specifically appointed ad hoc committee could be charged with this process and report their findings back to the full board. The board should also be asked for additional input. This assessment is not just about finding areas of deficiency; it is also a means of celebrating the successes of the organization. Click here to download a sample board evaluation form from our Solution Center.
NEVER LET THEM GO
If your board members have a rewarding experience serving on the board, they will be stronger advocates and more interested in the continuing success of the program even after they leave. Enhancing this development requires that you work with outgoing board leadership and ask how they would like to stay involved.
Nonprofits that don’t involve former board members in the organization are losing one of their most valuable assets. The expertise, institutional knowledge, connections and support of these individuals do not have to leave, once they have retired or resigned from the board. They may serve in an ex-officio or emeritus capacity. Former board members may also be perfect leaders for the annual fund-raising campaign, or in heading efforts to save a threatened historic site, chair the signature downtown special event, or serve on an advisory council. The immediate past chair should always remain on the board for an additional year for continuity. Keeping these leaders involved will add to the Main Street program’s image as a strongorganization in the public eye.
SEND YOUR BOARD MEMBERS TO NEW ORLEANS
This year's Main Streets Conference will offer a special opportunity for board members from all over the nation to get together and identify and discuss pressing issues. At this special session facilitated by NTMSC staff and other Main Street leaders, board members will share their successes and failures and learn from each other. Although there is no cost to attend, this is a ticketed event. Look for it on the online registration form.
Kathy La Plante is a senior program officer with the National Trust Main Street Center.
Kathy La Plante is a senior program officer with the National Trust Main Street Center.