Recruiting the Right Board Members

Feb 22, 2022

I was leading a visioning session in mid-February several years ago with the board of a small school to help them articulate their goals for the future as the first step in their strategic planning process. The board members impressed me—they were knowledgeable about the school and their role as governors, they were thoughtful and creative in our generative activities, and they were respectful and playful with one another. It had been a delightful and productive session. As we sat around the table finishing up our work, a board member raised her hand and said “Oh wait, just one more thing. The governance committee needs to find more board members for next year. Does anyone know someone who would be willing to join our board?” She ended the sentence with a little laugh and looked around the table. Crickets. Some board members actually looked away so she couldn’t catch their eye. She mumbled something like “Ok, we’ll keep looking” and everyone got up to go. I was astonished! How could this seemingly thoughtful and strategic board be so thoughtless and random about the way they cultivated and recruited new board members?

With everything else that is going on this late winter, independent school boards also need to ensure they have sufficient board members to govern their schools into the future. Unfortunately, many like the school described above, leave it to the last minute and scramble to even identify potential candidates. Others fail to achieve the diversity of membership they know will enable their board to be the best governing body possible. These schools struggle in part because they aren't using a carefully planned and executed process to ensure they get the right board members who will best support their school and their school's current needs.

We know how important boards are to the success of an independent school. Yet, if the care and trust of a school are so vastly important and critical to the school’s success and even viability, why do so many boards treat the identification and introduction of new members as an afterthought? This is one of the most important tasks a board has: to be self-perpetuating. A board requires a diverse group of engaged, thoughtful, and mission-aligned board members to effectively accomplish its work. The ability to be successful in all other areas rests on the efficacy of its individual members and their collective work together. And yet, time and time again I see boards that struggle to build the membership they need because they do not approach board member recruitment with the time, attention, and strategy that it requires. I hear frequently that boards only have current or past parents as members because they can’t find anyone else. Other boards have no parents, but rather, only friends of the head of school who are disconnected from the everyday life of the school. Many of these boards also fail to reflect the racial, ethnic, gender, and other diversity of their communities.

Small schools can build a board with diverse membership if they strategize and then follow a process. A thoughtful process takes time and should begin early in the school year, rather than wait until the month before the board votes on candidates. Boards that spend time strategically conducting a board member recruitment process over the course of the year will have the best chance of recruiting the right board members for their school. This process also ensures that board members are fully aware of their expectations and are prepared for board service. Here is a summary of a strategic board recruitment process:

  1. Be aware of, and adhere to, board member requirements in your bylaws.
  2. Identify the long-range and annual goals of the board and the school in order to identify the board member skills and characteristics needed to accomplish the goals.
  3. Consider the talents, skills, and perspectives already present on the board.
  4. Identify the types of people, skills, and perspectives that would add to the board (this includes considering the types of diversity needed to reflect your community).
  5. Identify where to find the people who would add to the board. For many schools, this is the most difficult step. Consider the following groups:
  • Alumni and alumni parents and family members
  • Friends, neighbors, faith community members, and work colleagues of current board members and school administrators
  • Local, connected businesses and partners
  • Local members of your community chamber of commerce
  • Local service groups such as Rotary, Kiwanis, the Lions Club
  • Professional service companies such as law firms, accounting firms, civil engineering firms, architects
  • School personnel (aspiring leaders) in nearby, non-competing schools 
  1. Follow a process for vetting that reduces discrimination and bias and also establishes prospective board members as friends of the school.
  2. Follow an orientation process that effectively welcomes and includes new board members into the culture and expectations of the board. Ensure that new board members receive the support they need with information, training, and mentorship throughout their first year.

When boards engage in a thorough, planned, and diligently-followed process for recruiting and onboarding new board members, they are more likely to identify and recruit people who have the skills, characteristics, and perspectives that will add value to the current membership of the board. This type of planning also helps to minimize bias in the recruitment process. Independent school boards are critical to the success of a school and need board members who will be the best governors possible. Ensuring they have the right board members is a core responsibility.

P.S. This post includes excerpts from my forthcoming book Governing the Small School: Strategies for Boards. You'll find more information about board member recruitment there!

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