Guest Post by Amy Stephan

Amy Stephan & Idea Girl Media recommend building nonprofit boards with diversity

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Non-profit organizations (NPOs) need to have more than a mission. They need to have strong leadership that guides them. That entity is the board of directors. The board is the front line of volunteers and should be the pacesetter for engagement, governance and financial stability. Even with the board being so important, often it’s the least defined piece for organizations.

Every organization is different. The mission, goals and objectives of a NPO will dictate what their board should look like in order to be successful. Common building blocks can be found in most engaged boards – diversity in membership, financial capabilities and connection to the mission. NPOs, especially small shops, should start with these when they are thinking about building their board.

Diversity in Membership

To create more structure for their boards, NPOs need to ask themselves what impact they expect a board to have. Defining the board’s goals is an important step in determining what kind of diversity you need and what you are asking from board members.

What is diversity?

Board diversity refers to many things – occupation, financial capabilities, community connections, link to the mission. NPOs need to concentrate on having a good balance of all these things.

Examples include:

  • Connection – Having members who are passionate about your mission for different reasons helps balance the emphasis put on programs, fundraising, research, etc.
  • Profession – Having people from different backgrounds and occupations brings a multitude of experiences to the table.
  • Social Networks – Engaging board members who have many different community connections broadens your reach.

Diversity is a building block for long-term success.

Diversity on Boards,”an article on the National Council of Nonprofits’ website may say it best, “Everyone brings his or her own personal and professional contacts and experiences to their service on a nonprofit board. There will always be numerous challenges facing a nonprofit and having a variety of ways to build bridges to potential donors or policy makers in the community, and community members, is extremely helpful.”

The Starting Block

When seeking new board members, NPOs should start by looking at what gaps in expertise need to be filled. If you are a health-based organization and have a membership comprised mostly of doctors and nurses, then focusing on non-medical field candidates is a good starting place. If you have a governing board with fiduciary responsibilities but nobody with expertise in finance, that may be an area of focus. Identify your needs up front and base your search on those needs.

Financial Capabilities

Our missions may not be bottom line driven, but we can’t meet our objectives without funding. While it’s nice to have board members who are affluent, it’s not the prerequisite.

How important is personal wealth?

Board members don’t necessarily have to be capable of making a six-figure gift. They should have the affluence and/or influence needed to help your organization secure gifts, grants, sponsorships or whatever it is you might need. Because the board of directors is considered the top tier of volunteers for any organization, they need to set an example for other donors you may be cultivating. There are few things more impactful to a potential donor, foundation or corporation than being able to say you have 100% giving support from within your organization.

Give it or get it

Many NPOs choose a “give or get” policy where board members are required to personally give or get a certain amount in donations each year. If you’ve achieved a diverse board, you will find a variety of members who:

  • Personally give.
  • Have access to individual or corporate donors (through their employer or otherwise).
  • Help secure grants through foundations.

Focus is important

The important thing to remember is that your board is your governing body – not the fundraising arm of your organization. Board members should be setting an example for other donors and helping contribute to your fundraising efforts. Your board should be concerned with watching the bottom line to help ensure financial stability. A recent article in The Nonprofit Quarterly by Simone P. Joyaux discusses the difference between a board and board member and how NPOs should utilize them differently for fundraising purposes.

Connection To The Mission

Every board member needs a connection to your mission, but it doesn’t have to be the same connection and it doesn’t have to be immediate. Different connections will help bring different viewpoints to the table, leading to decisions that are more inclusive to those you serve.

Explore Various Connections

When looking for new board members explore different types of mission connections to increase diversity on the board.

  • Professional connection
  • A personal story that ties them to your services
  • Connection between your mission’s work and people they care about
  • Create a connection – Some people have no immediate connection but will find it through your personal stories and accomplishments.

Ask, Listen, Learn

The best thing you can do to cultivate those relationships is listen to their story. Everyone on your board has a story and it’s likely they want to share it. Your role is to listen and discover what motivates them.

Once you’ve heard their story ask them to share it – a lot. Don’t keep those golden tickets a secret. Encourage your board members to utilize social media to share why they are involved. Encourage them to write a guest blog for your website. Use their stories in your annual appeal letter. Share their stories.

While getting the most out of each board member is important for success, making sure that they are getting the most from your NPO is just as important. After listening, ask what their expectations are from you and your organization. Ask what they hope to get out of their service. Find out what they want to achieve and what legacy they want to have as a member. Make it a partnership.

Raising The Bar

The best thing I can tell you about strengthening a board doesn’t neatly fit into any one area because it’s about all of the building blocks working together – Raise the bar.

If you want the right person to join your board and have that board become and remain successful, you have to create the right environment. From asking the right candidates to having the right staff person to the actual space where your board meets – Raise the bar.

The highest professional caliber environment will attract the highest caliber people. NPOs spend too much time worrying about filling seats and not enough time finding the people for the right structure. Filling a seat isn’t a difficult task, building the right structure and finding the right people who will truly make a difference is the challenge. These building blocks are a good start to conquering that challenge.


Amy Stephan of Kindergarten Maze to Conrete JungleAbout Amy Stephan

Amy Stephan is a consultant and non-profit professional with more than 10 years of field experience working in fundraising and development. She helps NPOs with fundraising and major gifts, capital campaigns, board and volunteer development and staff leadership, working with organizations of all sizes to plan, implement and assess social media strategies.

She has worked with organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the American Diabetes Association, and is a freelance writer where she blogs weekly at Kindergarten Maze to Concrete Jungle.  Follow Amy on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook.