Don’t Lose your EPBMs

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 23rd, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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One of the most common complaints that I hear is how hard it is to find good board members, meaning they can’t find the bodies. My comeback always is, if you do it strategically, the right way, it isn’t hard.  On the other hand, it can truly be one of the more off-putting processes for that EPBM (eager, prospective board member) seeking GNB (great nonprofit board).
unicornOne of the most frequent complaints I hear from individuals seeking a board position is that they don’t know how to go about securing one.  Think about it:  where do you find these listings?  There are some sites, such as The Nonprofit Center’s findnonprofitjobs.org, and volunteer sites, such as volunteermatch.org, where you can find listings for board members and other volunteer positions.  But no matter how much of a wired society we are, we still are not conditioned to look for volunteer opportunities on the web.  I have rarely seen a nonprofit’s website posting board position openings, even when they have a section of their website devoted to employment opportunities with the organization.  So, what is that EPBM supposed to do?  Find an interesting nonprofit, through a chance encounter, attending an event, cruising the Internet?  Pick up the phone, call the executive director (because the board president’s or chair of the governance committee’s phone number won’t be listed), say you are interested in exploring serving on the board and ask about the on-boarding process.

And then be prepared to wait!  It can be weeks, and from some reports, even months, before that EPBM hears back from the GNB (which would lead me to believe it isn’t really a GNB, but more like a LTGNB—less than great nonprofit board--which you should avoid).  There is no excuse for not responding to an on-boarding inquiry immediately.  There are stories of EPBM leaving messages and never getting a return call.  Perhaps even worse is the executive director who responds enthusiastically to the EPBM, says s/he or the board president will be in touch in the next few days, and weeks go by with nothing.  “Just checking in” emails from the EPBM to the executive director will, in return, receive responses that say “trying to get hold of my board president” or “just give me a little more time” or “on deadline; will be in touch next week.”  Next week, a little more time, all come and go, and that EPBM is less eager, hurt stops checking-in.  Way to go organization!  Turned off that board candidate with initiative, follow-through, and excitement.  Who wanted her anyway?

If contact is made and the next step—talking with the board president, meeting with the governance committee chair, being interviewed by a small group of board members and the executive director, whatever that first date is—clearly laid out, it frequently takes weeks to set it up.  If that time lag is the result of the EPBM’s schedule, that is fine.  But if it is the result of the GNB not having its act together, which is the more common culprit, it is anything but fine.  Even worse is rescheduling with the EPBM again and again and again.  Long periods of silence between contacts can really discourage an EPBM.  The appearance of disorganization can really frustrate an EPBM and push him to consider other alternatives, no matter how interested he might be in the mission of that GNB’s organization.

In preparation for that meeting, a true EPBM will do further research on the organization’s website.  Now that she knows there is real possibility of joining this board, she will be interested in learning something about the members of the board, those folks who might become her future colleagues.  Wait! There is no listing on the website of board members.  How could that be?  Oh, wait! Finally found it.  But there is just a list of names.  How do I know who this William Smith is or that Jane Brown? How do I know whether this is a strategically crafted board or the friends and family of the executive director? How do I know what kind of brain trust this board really is?  Is this a group of which I really want to be part?  Why aren’t they telling the public?  So, so frustrating!

And now for the next hurdle:  the mandatory give.  Hey all you EPBMs out there:  how many of you have been salivating at the opportunity before you to hook up with that GNB only to be hit with the number of zeros that must follow the first number on your annual contribution check?  You can feel the pin bursting your balloon of enthusiasm.  And you leave, hurt, deflated, dejected, and, sooner or later, angry with that stupid nonprofit for not seeing and appreciating what you would have brought to the board but really only wanting your money.  I judge nonprofits harshly who turn EPBM’s away simply because they can’ write the right sized check.  They will never see a check from me.

It is one thing to turn an EPBM down for board service if the fit isn’t right, the skills present and those sought don’t mesh, the time commitment can’t be there, etc.  It is quite another to turn off an EPBM because the process is disorganized, slow, exclusive, etc.  As is true of so many things in the nonprofit sector, if one nonprofit does something wrong or badly, the whole sector suffers.  We cannot afford to have the poor processes of some ruin the board recruitment prospects for the whole.

Boards must get their recruitment acts together.  There are simply too many great EPBM seeking GNB that the NS (nonprofit sector) can’t afford to lose.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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