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What to Look for When Selecting Your Nonprofit Board of Directors

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Just like any other position in your organization, it’s imperative that you vet and analyze each candidate you consider for your board of directors. It takes more than influence to effectively serve on a board.

There are certain traits, skills, and mindsets that will either sink an organization or lead it to success, and identifying those factors in a person before offering them a seat will save your nonprofit many headaches in the long run.

In fact, according to a Stanford survey, 27% of nonprofit directors believe that their board members don’t have a solid understanding of the mission and strategy of their organization. This is a problem that can’t wait until members are already sitting on your board.

To that end, I’ve put together a list of traits and skills you should look out for when selecting a nonprofit board of directors, as well as ten questions you can ask to identify these strengths.

By the end of this piece, you will know what questions to ask your prospects, which strengths to look for, and how to find out who is fit to serve on your board of directors.

What to Look for When Selecting Your Nonprofit Board of Directors graphic

What are the traits of successful board members?

While your nonprofit board will thrive on diversity of background and opinion, there are certain traits that each member should bring to the table to ensure productive collaboration.

Bringing on even one board member without all or most of these traits can throw the entire group off, destroying its ability to effectively govern your nonprofit. Considering the limited resources available to most nonprofits, this is something your organization can’t afford.

Look for these six traits in your prospective board members:

  1. Passionate about the cause: My father always told me that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. If you aren’t passionate about something, you are less inclined to work hard for it. Sure, there are plenty of professional fundraisers and wealthy individuals you could ask to sit on your board, but how many are truly passionate about your cause? Interest in the cause is the foundation that every prospective board member ought to have. There is no exception to this rule.
  2. Open-minded: In a group setting with many different viewpoints, keeping an open mind allows for healthy communication. Board members that come in with an open mind are far more likely to empower other board members to express their point of view and work toward solutions.
  3. Takes responsibility for outcomes: A position that gives major decision-making powers to any individual comes with a great deal of responsibility. Look for candidates who have a record of taking responsibility in decision-making environments, especially in team settings, when things have gone well and when they’ve gone wrong.
  4. Forward thinking: Looking for candidates who have a “forward” mindset will help your nonprofit in the long run. These candidates are outside-the-box thinkers who look for solutions to problems you might not even know your organization has. They want to grow the cause and will help push the rest of your board on vision changes and innovations when necessary.
  5. Respectful of others: It’s impossible to act in a team setting if members of the team don’t respect one another. While this also seems like a self-evident trait to look for, some are better at disguising their lack of respect than others. Before making a decision on a new member for your board, look out for these warning signs of disrespect, such as interrupting or consistent tardiness, so you can weed out those who won’t mesh with the team when it matters most.
  6. A willingness to learn: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This is my favorite quote from Albert Einstein. It perfectly encapsulates the mentality that your prospective board members need to bring to the table. A willingness to learn will encourage others on your board to express their viewpoints and share their experience, knowing that another board member is open to learning from others.

No matter what expertise or resources your prospective board members bring to the table, without these traits, the board seat is wasted on them. Their resources won’t amount to much without a drive and a team-oriented mentality.

But that’s not to say that skills aren’t important.

What skill sets should you seek from prospective board members?

Once you’ve evaluated the qualities and traits of your prospective board members, there are certain skills you ought to look out for. These skills are acquired over years of work experience, both in nonprofit and for-profit work environments.

Here are the four skills you should look for in prospective board members:

  1. Communication skills: Board members are not only the governing body of your nonprofit, they are also partly the face of your organization. They communicate with large donors, they make speeches on behalf of your nonprofit, and they make statements to the media. Effective communication skills are definitely desired for any prospective board member.
  2. Fundraising skills: Although nonprofits are driven by hopes and dreams, they aren’t funded by them. It always helps to have board members with some sort of background in fundraising. Their ability to work their networks and bring in additional support is an invaluable skill for any nonprofit.
  3. Financial management skills: Your board of directors will make decisions that will impact the financial standing of your nonprofit. It’s best if most, if not all, of your board members have some sort of experience in managing finances for organizations (for-profit or nonprofit). This experience will help them judge the viability of initiatives and the kind of returns these efforts will bring your organization.
  4. Teamwork and team management skills: Teamwork is essential to the success of your organization. Therefore it’s best that each board member have some experience in team management and teamwork-based environments. This will ensure that they can come to collective decisions that are best for the board and the organization as a whole.

If your prospective board members are also familiar with nonprofit management software such as membership management software, this is a plus.

It isn’t necessary for each prospective board member to have all of these skills—differing strengths will give you a diversity of perspective. However, it is helpful that each skill is represented by at least one board member.

10 questions to ask prospective board members

I’ve put together a few questions you can ask prospective board members so you can sort the wheat from the chaff.

Questions to ask your prospective board members:

  1. What can you tell us about our organization?
  2. What best describes your motivation for joining our board of directors?
  3. Is there something our organization is doing or not doing that you would handle differently?
  4. Describe a significant learning experience you’ve gone through in your professional career.
  5. What resources do you bring to the table?
  6. If you were to join our board, what kind of time commitments could you make to the organization?
  7. What do you hope to take from sitting on our board of directors?
  8. Describe a time you had to lead through a difficult situation.
  9. What kind of financial commitments can you make to our organization?
  10. Are there any conflicts of interest we should be aware of?

These questions will help you decipher their traits, motivations, and drive for serving on your nonprofit board of directors.

Other nonprofit resources

If you are currently interviewing nonprofit board members, chances are your organization is new and still finding its footing. Luckily, the Capterra nonprofit technology blog has plenty of resources to help you establish your organization and lead it to success.

Even if your organization isn’t new and you’re just dealing with board turnover, there are plenty of other resources on our blog that you’ll find interesting.

If you enjoyed this piece, here are a few others you might be interested in:

Looking for Nonprofit software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Nonprofit software solutions.

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About the Author

Nick Morpus

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Nick Morpus is a Content Writer for Capterra, a free resource that matches buyers and sellers of business software. He has a background in politics, economics, and journalism, which he dedicates his off-time to contributing his thoughts to other political sites. In his free-time he enjoys reading, drawing, photography, playing guitar, writing, and cooking.

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