Stupid Human Tricks: How not to recruit a nonprofit Board

The Nonprofiteer thanks a faithful reader for offering this example of how not to recruit a nonprofit Board. Faithful Reader received the following e-mail, though--as she notes--"I am not even a supporter. I may have given them money once but I have no memory of doing so."

Dear Members and Friends,

Some years are better than others. This has been a challenging year for [us]. Just over two years ago, the board of directors decided to increase the hours of the new executive director by 50%. It was a risk. We were optimistic.

In retrospect, we were too optimistic. Perhaps we underestimated the lingering effect of the “Great Recession” on our supporters. Despite solid work by [the new] executive director [the group] was not financially able to continue her employment.

During these challenging times, we need some help to get the organization restarted. There are many ways for you to help:

1. Consider joining the board of directors. In the past year or two, several board members reluctantly resigned due to changes in the circumstances of their lives. [The remaining board members] would really appreciate having colleagues on the board....

If you are a current or former supporter and you are interested in serving on the board, please send us your name and your phone number. Please also include whether you have ever volunteered with us or been employed by us or served on the board or on any committees. A member of the board will contact you to discuss.

The Nonprofiteer says ARE YOU BLEEPING KIDDING ME? What kind of idiot chooses as a recruiting device a broadcast email announcing that the organization is in dire straits? And what do you mean, "Let us know if you've ever been involved before"? You're the organization--you have the files--go look it up. And what do you mean "If you are a supporter"? If you don't know whether the person you're writing to is a supporter, why are you writing? As Faithful Reader observed, "Put this in your file of 'Nonprofit Boards Do The Darndest Things.'"

Here's what nonprofit Boards should do:

1. Sit the entire Board down along with, if necessary, their spouses, companions, bridge partners and sorority sisters and just brainstorm names. You know more people than you think you do. There are the people the agency does business with (the copy shop on the corner? the caterer of your last event?) and the people with whom you interact in other aspects of your life (your dentist? your pilates teacher?). Try to ascertain what connections there might be between the work of your agency and these people. The Nonprofiteer promises that within an hour you'll have a list of at least three solid Board prospects.

2. Call each of these Board prospects individually. (Obviously, the person who knows the prospect best should make the call.) You'd like to buy her a cup of coffee and tell her something about your agency. Most people will say yes.

3. Attend each of these meetings with one other Board member. One of you is the good cop ("Our agency is so great!") and the other the bad cop ("Here are the things we expect of Board members"). By the end of coffee the recruit will either have said "Yes" or "No, but I'm glad to have learned more about you." The worst that will happen is that one more person will go from stranger to acquaintance, which is a step closer to friend. The best is that the recruit will say "yes," and give your Board some much-needed fresh blood.

Note: this only works if you've written a clear and complete statement of your expectations of Board members. Don't be coy: it should say exactly how much money each Board member is expected to contribute or raise (the "give or get") as well as the number of meetings s/he's supposed to attend and the choice of committees s/he'll serve on. Here's a sample.

So: two takeaways. One, recruit individuals; there's a reason actors call mass auditions "cattle-calls," and no one wants to donate time and money to a group which treats him/her like a side of beef. Two, make sure you know what you're asking people to do. Sure, there are people who will say "no" if they realize they have to give money and time--but then those are people you don't want on your Board to begin with.

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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick & Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at

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