Board succession Part 3: Selecting the right board members

It's important to be prepared before you start recruiting board members. When a vacancy arises, it is time to put your plan into action.

You should already have laid the groundwork of an effective and responsive recruitment strategy by:

  • Reading the first two parts of the board succession help sheets, Finding new board members and Recruiting new board members;
  • Thinking about the direction in which your group is heading and what major projects or activities are in store over the next few years;
  • Documenting the qualities and skills needed to help lead your community group towards its aims;
  • Identifying the skills/expertise gaps in your board membership;
  • Deciding whether your board could better reflect the diversity of your members/clients/community;
  • Developing a pool of candidates; and
  • Starting to get potential candidates involved with your group.

Step One – Making a selection

When the time comes to install a new board member, you need to consult your prospect list to determine who would be the best match for the job. It is important that the decision is based on what is best for the board and the group.

Don't think that because board members are volunteers you should be grateful for any old dingbat who agrees to join up. All groups should have a screening policy and process for prospective board members. Ask for a CV and references. Ask around. Ask the candidate:

  • Why are you interested in our group?
  • How much time can you contribute to the group?
  • What skills, experience or contacts can you offer?
  • What support will you need if you become a board member?
  • What do you want out of your board service?
  • Can you envisage any conflicts of interest that may arise?
  • Do you have any previous experience serving on a board, or in other leadership positions?

Sometimes friends and acquaintances want to be involved. This should not be the only reason for selection to a very important and responsible position. You should already have a list of the skills and expertise your group is in search of and this should be adhered to closely as you make your selection. You should also have firmly in mind both your group's mission statement and the need to balance the board and include a variety of voices; recruiting individuals from a wide variety of careers and backgrounds will make your board well-rounded and more representative of your organisation's membership and the wider community.

Some other tips

Every organisation needs a sufficient range of expertise to accomplish its organisation's mission. At the same time, attempting to cover all possible bases with a board member will lead to an unworkably large board. Try to maximise the board's effectiveness by ensuring that each member has more than one skill.

Another way to broaden the skills base of your team is to create advisory committees, as discussed above, who agree to provide specialist advice pro bono. Advisory group members can make a significant contribution to your groups without having to commit to attending regular meetings.

Step Two – Making the approach

You should now have in mind at least one or two people who you consider would be a perfect fit for your board. Now comes the hard part – the ask.

It can be disheartening to have gone to all the trouble of carefully identifying and selecting suitable candidates only to have them turn you down when you offer them a place on the board. To minimise the chances of a knock-back, you should keep in mind the following strategies.

  • Make them want to say yes. You need to offer prospective board members convincing reasons why they should join. These might include:
    • Having an opportunity both to learn and teach others
    • Contributing to decisions that affect their local community
    • Building or strengthening networks of business and community associates
    • Developing professional and personal skills and experiences
    • Making new friends
  • Sell your group. Make sure the person making the approach to the board member prospect has a good knowledge of the group, including its history, rules and procedures, and current and future aims. Make sure the person making the "pitch" is enthusiastic about the group and where it is heading, and can sell the prospect of serving on its board as a privilege, not a chore.

Make it personal. People usually respond best to requests for help if they come from someone they know. Check among past and present board members, staff, members, volunteers, etc. if anyone has a personal connection with the prospect. If appropriate, ask them to broach the issue first, or ask their permission to use their name when you make your approach.

  • Meet face to face. Invitations and requests are more easily declined if they are made via telephone, letter or email. Call and make an appointment, then make your case face to face.
  • Get them involved. As we mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to get prospective board members involved in the group as early as possible. A person who already has a good idea about what your group does will be more likely to agree to join the board. Invite them to a meeting to allow them to see how your board operates.

The needs of the prospective board member should also be considered in your approach. You need to be upfront about what will be asked of them and what the board experience can offer them in return.

You should also be prepared to be open about your group and its board. Offer prospects a copy of the board members' job description, policies, minutes of past meetings, newsletters, etc. and give them the telephone numbers of existing board members they may want to discuss their potential role with.

Step Three – Formalising the role

Once you have decided on a board member, and they have agreed for their name to be put forward, they need to be formally nominated and installed.

Your group's constitution or rules should detail the rules and procedures. Generally, board members are elected by the group's members each year at the Annual General Meeting (details about nominees will usually be sent to voting members beforehand). However, they can also be added during the year to fill any vacancies that arise. Some organisations use a structured nomination form, others are more informal, with names being forwarded to the recruitment committee, which makes recommendations to the full board.

Follow Up

Once a new board member has been approved, you should make contact to confirm that they are willing to take up the role. Once they have confirmed their acceptance you should send a letter confirming the appointment and congratulating them on their selection. You should also provide them with information about when meetings will be held, other activities and functions that are coming up, and how and when their orientation will take place. More information about orientation and induction is contained in the Developing an effective induction process help sheet.