The Board Recruitment Dilemma: A community problem that needs a community solution

by Matthew Downey, Director of Nonprofit Services

Photo: Matthew Downey

One can argue that most nonprofit organizations across the U.S. struggle in some way with recruiting the right leaders to fill board roles. Too often, those of us in the sector hear stories of individuals who have had board experiences that were less than satisfying, down right bad, or even tragic.

If nonprofit boards are to continue serving so many important functions in a civil society and maintain the social networks that have become so critical to community economic viability, much attention is needed to improve the community-level ecosystems that cultivate community leadership.

Throughout U.S. history, there are critical moments that have impacted how nonprofit boards evolved to their present state. As nonprofits have evolved to become more complex, so too have the issues and challenges they face. It is imperative to recognize that these problems are not simply faced by a few organizations, but rather are sector-wide problems that can only be solved through community-level solutions.

So why do we struggle?

One troubling reality about today’s boards and the challenges organizations face managing them is the fact that we have had nonprofit boards in this country since before we had a government, yet very little has changed. In fact, we still operate today with the organizational structure that was formally codified into law in the early 1800s.

Throughout most of U.S. history, we never really asked nonprofits to do very complicated things. Since we didn’t ask much, we also didn’t do anything to prepare people to serve on boards. It wasn’t until the 1980s that we turned to nonprofit organizations to take on incredibly challenging social issues. Yet, it is within the past decade that we’ve begun to become more sophisticated with board member preparation. We still have a lot of room to grow in terms of how we prepare people to serve in a CEO position.

Research shows us that the relationships formed and maintained in the board rooms of each community’s social institutions act as an indicator of the health of a community. Developing this social network is critical to strengthening any community. However, in large cities, these networks can become dominated by one or two corporate entities which in turn can stifle diversity efforts and anecdotally, we know that communities of all sizes struggle to provide board members with quality experiences.

Essentially we’re asking board members to function in a job they were never prepared for, choosing and monitoring strategies for issues they struggle to understand, all while managing professional and personal lives largely disconnected from their board member role.

Additionally, we’re turning to CEOs to manage these boards who, by and large, have never received any formal training. It’s no wonder many argue that our sector is facing a leadership crisis.

Today, board members and their CEO counterparts are caught in the cross-hairs of political and societal forces that demand of nonprofits accountability, transparency, measurable program impact, and diversified financial sustainability while maintaining low investments in administrative expenses, employee wages, infrastructure, and professional development, fundraising, and communication activities.

This needs to change. Our new reality requires that nonprofit CEOs be prepared to understand their role as a facilitator rather than a chief and that board members engage their networks to support organizations more than ever before. We must ask ourselves: is it possible that nonprofits play roles in communities that go well beyond the services provided through programming? Do nonprofits, by way of community leadership and relationships in their board rooms, serve as mechanisms that encourage a community’s economic viability? And if the answer to those questions is “yes,” then we must seriously reconsider how we develop our local talent and leadership through board service. If we are to succeed and contribute to the sustainability of our neighborhoods, we must start leveraging our relationships to curate community-level solutions to this and other sector-wide issues.

Be sure to see Matthew Downey and Tamela Spicer present on this topic at the 2017 BoardSource Leadership Forum in Seattle, October 18–20.


  1. Reply
    Michelle says

    Insightful article. This subject needs discussion. It always amazes me that the board is legally held responsible for a nonprofit organization when, as you say, they “have never received any formal training.”

  2. Reply
    Jerry Pinney says

    Two things that are necessary for success in a non-profit or a for profit organization. One – a very complete set of written procedures and processes. Two – a very complete set of training (not telling) procedures for all of the processes and procedures. With these two things in place and updated on a regular basis you can have a very successful organization.

  3. Reply
    Shauna says

    This raises such interesting issues of reciprocity and the assumptions about who benefits from board service. Do board members serve the organization, with the expectation that the organization is the beneficiary of that relationship, or do organizations serve their boards, with the expectation that nonprofits create leadership development opportunities of value to the community even if that work doesn’t directly strengthen the nonprofit? Which of these is primary and which is secondary, especially when they’re in conflict? I don’t think there’s a simple answer, but I see a lot of people struggling with this tension.

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