Denny Young On Recruiting Your Board

Your board members can make or break your nonprofit. Having a strong, engaged and active board will help your organization with the governance needed to hit your ambitious goals. Denny Young comes on the podcast today to share how to recruit board members that are passionate, engaged and excited about your cause. 

Denny Young has been working in the nonprofit space for over 30 years. As a professor and consultant, he has helped many nonprofits find success within their organization. Being a board member himself to two different nonprofits, Denny knows what it takes to find strong members that will add value to your organization. 

Denny shares how to 
  • Find new board members 
  • Go through the recruiting process and 
  • Deal with inactive, unmotivated members 
He explains communication is key, and you have to set clear expectations with your board. Having a communication system for your board is a great way to ease them into the onboarding process and keep them updated on your organization’s progress. Denny suggests being upfront and honest and setting clear boundaries for board members that also volunteer with the day to day. 

If you’re struggling to communicate effectively with your board, read on to discover an all in one solution that will make onboarding easier for everyone. 

Official Transcript

How do we create better boards and what should you do when a board member isn't contributing? Today we speak with Denny Young, a nonprofit management expert and professor with over 15 years of senior management experience. He's going to answer all these questions and more. So stay tuned.

Hello and welcome to the Fundraising Superheroes podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and this podcast is brought to you by, you guessed it, Donor Engine and all in one non-profit software that is built from the ground up for you and your team. Member engine organizes and effortlessly manages your entire association in one application visit to schedule a free demo. 

Your board members are a tremendous asset to your non-profit organization, it can help guide you in the right direction. A good relationship with your board means your organization is working at its best. But what do you do when your board member becomes inactive? How do you build a strong team?

Denny Young can tell you how, and luckily he's on the show today. having worked in the nonprofit sector for over 30 years. Denny knows what goes into a successful nonprofit organization. He's taught audits for 17 years, worked as a nonprofit management expert for over 15 years, and has helped hundreds of volunteers achieve excellence on top of that he's a board member himself.

So thank you so much for joining us on the show. 

A pleasure, Sabrina, thanks for inviting me. 

So how do executives find their board members? Is there a process or steps they should follow? 

I always recommend that organizations begin with an assessment of themselves, of the organization, what is the board's role. Board roles can evolve over time.

Sometimes an organization that's very new will have a board that's very active in operations and essentially running the place. And over time, those roles can change. And sometimes we don't really sit back and say, what is it that we want these folks as a group to do and then also as individuals. And so I ask organizations, are you really still recruiting people for an operational role, for actual hands-on work in the delivery of the mission?

Are you more likely to look at a group that will be involved in governance? And that is a big term, but essentially overseeing the organization but not having involvement in day to day. And then most organizations also nowadays want board members of the board itself and then board members individually to be involved in some way or another in raising money for the organization. So looking at those three things, are you really still an operational board? Are you a board that is in charge of governing the organization, and is there the added element of fundraising?

So if you're recruiting people for the actual day to day hands-on operations, then you need to assess what are the actions we need done and what is the expertise we need from these individuals. If you're really looking at a group that will govern the organization because you have staff who manage the day to day, then you're looking for expertise again, but not for action, but for advice. So you will likely want on your board, you should think about having on your board people who can offer advice on particular topics.

A big responsibility of board members is risk assessment, and that comes in a bunch of flavours. Finance is certainly the biggest one. It doesn't mean that you need to be an accountant or that you're only looking for accountants, but it means that you need people who can assess how the organization is doing financially and accept responsibility for that situation. Because ultimately in law board members are responsible for the financial health of the organization.

Speaking of law, it doesn't hurt to have people who understand at least the basics of charity law. That is, again, not a requirement that they are a lawyer. And in fact, organizations will often recruit professionals, particularly lawyers, to a board and then discover, to their dismay that the lawyer can't offer them professional advice because she's in a conflict of interest. She's a trustee. She's a board member. So she's in effect advising herself, which lawyers can't do.

So ask yourself, if you're recruiting a lawyer to do work for you, then they don't need to be on the board. They could just be a volunteer. That then helps out and handles things for you as a volunteer lawyer. But once they're on the board, they're quite restricted in what they can do. So watch that one. 

I always think it's good to have people who have human resources skills. Government relations is helpful if the government is one of your primary funders or one of the primary overseers of the work you do.

And certainly, a huge piece is community relations. So, board members who know the communities you're serving and can interpret things on their behalf, they're not formally representing a community. It's not like parliament where they represent an area.

But it's helpful to have people who can give advice to staff, particularly the senior staff person, about how certain things the charity is doing or does will be interpreted by the community. And then finally, this is the area where everybody gets very nervous about it. I'm a fundraiser by background, so I'm aware that people are nervous about it. So I'll just say you need to understand that when you recruit people to a board and tell them that part of their responsibility will be fundraising.

Unless they understand and have expertise in what fundraising is, their minds will race to all manner of most scary things that they fear that they'll be asked to do. And so you need to really be very clear when you say fundraising, it would be like saying to me, who barely made it through chemistry in high school, you'll be required to mix chemicals. I wouldn't know what you mean by that. And I would assume it means I'm going to create a fire.

So I would back off and think, oh, gosh, I can't do this. So you need to say the primary things that I look for in a board member for fundraising is their willingness to really connect with what we are doing and be able to tell others about it. To be storytellers, to be connectors, and primarily to recognize that the fundraising process is one that gobbles up time. Fundraising isn't a magical thing.

It's essentially spending time with people and organizations that might be willing to support your charity and helping them understand what you want to accomplish. And that, again, doesn't require some mystical or magic training and fundraising. It requires that board members understand the mission of the organization and can speak well about what it wants to achieve. So again, I always say to five board members, you first have to decide what you're looking for. And I know that sounds simplistic and it isn't meant to be insulting, but it is amazing how we frequently will go on a journey and then wonder where are we going or what are we doing?

And this is the time to really map out what it is you want to accomplish when you're looking for board members before you just start aiming and firing at people based on a variety of goals.

The other thing I think is very, very important to recognize is that your best source of new folks for your board actually should come from current board members. Because they best understand what the role entails and what's expected of them, and they can likely identify people like them. So here's the one caveat in that if your current board perhaps is, let's say, very focused on operations, but you don't need that anymore, then here's the caution.

Don't seek recruits from your current board because they will duplicate themselves. They will say, oh, you know, I've been doing this activity inside the organization once a week or on a daily basis and I know someone who will be able to do that. If you're moving your board or it's necessary now that your board move to more of a governance state and a fundraising support state, then if you don't have those kinds of folks on the board, this would be not the time to ask them for recruit ideas.

But if you do have people who represent the community, one of the communities that you serve and they are good at explaining to others in the community what the organization is trying to accomplish and giving advice to the senior staff in the organization about the mission of the organization, not from a daily basis, but from what the community needs and what the community thinks of how the organization is delivering the mission. Those people often know many, many like themselves.

And so that's another place to start is really to look at what you have, what you want to continue, what you might want to revise and change and then decide where you want to go in terms of recruiting people.

Yeah, it sounds like communication is a really big thing and planning out exactly what you want and knowing that before you approach people to be part of the board.

Yes. So, so true, Sabrina, you know that great old line about if you don't know where you're going you're surely not going to get there. And so that kind of sense of planning. And I love that you mentioned communication because in my experience it is a topic that is the recruitment of board members that we assume everybody is on the same page about who we're looking for and what kinds of talents and interests we're looking for.

And frequently we don't talk about that. So that's something to really, really talk about all the time with your staff, with your board members. Who are the kinds of folks that we are so thrilled we have onboard? It's a nice way to pat the board on the back like we are so grateful to you folks. And if you know folks like you that you think would be good in serving on this board, that's it's a nice place to begin.

But we really do need to say we're going to look for these kinds of folks and often we fail to do that because we assume everybody's on the same page, like, oh, I'm sure we're all working for this. And then you find out people are suggesting names of people and you're thinking, I don't understand why they suggested that person. And it's because you haven't really agreed on what's our recruiting strategy. 

When you are recruiting new members what's the most critical part of that evaluation? What do you look out for to know that a person's right for your organization?

Hands down. No question. I did my research when I was doing my master's on board recruitment. Hands down. I will say this without reservation.

You need people who have a connection to the mission of the organization who deeply care for and understand what it's trying to accomplish and support that in their heart. We have a tendency at times to look for expertise or connections before we realized and realized too late that a person might have great skill and they might be able to give great advice about human resources.

But the mission of the charity, what it's trying to accomplish is either not interesting to them, they're not familiar with it, or they're actually opposed to it. And remarkably, you know, people will frequently realize the conflicts in their organization come from particularly senior volunteers who really haven't owned and grasped what the organization is trying to accomplish and feel deeply in favour of that and want it to happen. So you need people who are passionate about what the organization wants to accomplish and want to be agents in that.

If you're passionate about something and we talked about this before our interview today, it's so much easier to be motivated to get involved and to go that extra mile and be just really engaged with the organization you're working with. So I think having that conversation in the recruiting process and just seeing what a person's values and interests are is a huge benefit to the nonprofit. 


And what I find interesting is frequently there's a great line, you know, about familiarity breeds contempt. And I won't go so far as to say contempt, but familiarity can breed a sense of forgetfulness. We look around and think of it in your personal life. You're looking around thinking, oh, you know, I'd like to get more friends who care about film or care about hiking on weekends. And it never occurred to us that people who are very close to us actually might like film or hiking.

You know, we just haven't really looked around the inner circle of people we all know, we keep wanting to add new. And that's a bad strategy for two reasons. If you have people who are already very committed to your organization, let's say they've been donating or they've been volunteering or they're connected to you in some way through collaborating on your mission. And you don't consider them for board membership, but you're constantly going outside and trying to involve people who really don't know what you do.

Then you go back to the friendship. If you're constantly saying on Facebook, oh, I went hiking today with my brand new friend, Joe. And, you know, your friends are thinking, well, why didn't she ask me, like, I like to hike and I've known her for years, what's that about? So it makes the inner circle start to think, oh, well, obviously something is wrong with me or they get mad and think, well, you know, go ahead, enjoy your new friendship. I'm not a friend anymore. 

So it can be damaging, but it also can be just hurtful that you don't think about people who are already demonstrating that passion. But I'm cautious to say this. It isn't simply passion. That's enough. You need to match that with the kind of abilities and expertise we need on the board? But we often start with expertise and ability and then try to create passion. And it doesn't work.

If I don't like let's say I don't like hockey, recruiting me to coach a hockey team isn't going to make me love hockey. You know, it's an odd thing to do. Recruit people to coach hockey who love hockey. And then if they need some technical expertise, of course, they can't coach Hockey, just because you love it to be a coach as well. But why would you say this person coaches volleyball so, therefore, she can coach hockey?

You've got to find out if she loves hockey.

Yeah, unfortunately, I've heard of some organizations that have struggled a little bit with their board members. They're either not pitching in financially or not showing up for events. And a lot of I would say, like a miscommunication between the two or a general lack of interest for those organizations. What do you recommend they do?

Well, you know, it's a perfect follow up question to bring it to the last one. It's probably a symptom that they just aren't connected to the mission. And so this is a little tough, let's say, if you're going to have to get started on a strategy or map out a plan, that will take some time. But one of the first things I always say to an organization is maybe back to what we were talking about earlier.

Maybe your board's purpose has changed and maybe the people on your board were at one time they were chosen for those roles because they could help with operations or do specific things, but perhaps that isn't necessary anymore. One of the things that I think a lot of organizations are going to have to take a look at and I highly recommend is the size of their board, I feel very strongly that smaller is better. Five passionate people who really want the organization to succeed are better than twenty-five who are kind of not really OK, maybe a little connected to the mission.

Now I'm fully aware that the change in the size of the board would require a change in an organization's bylaws and that's a bit of an, I won't say a hassle, but it's certainly a step by step process that that would need to be followed to get to that. If you're a senior exec and you're really just struggling to find appropriate people because you're trying to fill twenty-five seats, look at the group and say to yourself, you know, there are probably five people here that would be magnificent if we could work really closely with them and get things done rather than try to motivate the other 20 who are not really that keen.

So as a short term strategy and it sounds a bit nefarious, I admit, but you might just say, look, I'm just going to essentially write off the ones that really aren't demonstrating any passion or interest. I'm not going to consider them bad people. It's probably that they were recruited for something that we don't need them to do or they were recruited for reasons that really don't fit where we are now. But there are some folks in here who deeply care I'm going to work with them and over time with them, we're going to come up with, you know, where do we want to go as a board plan?

Who do we want to recruit? Do we want to reduce the size and get to that stage eventually? So, yes, I admit it's a step by step process. But work with what you've got. Don't spend a lot of time worrying about the folks that that are able to contribute and don't demonize them just, essentially if they're neglecting you, neglect them. Certainly, keep them in the loop because they are still officially members of the board.

But don't beat yourself up because they're really not contributing focus on the ones that are. And then, as I said, over time, begin a process that is true to the current need and purpose of the board. And with that, you know, I always say to people, really do sit down and say, what? What will a new board member be expected to do and start with the high-level stuff with that notion of passion. 

I always say and I use this term deliberately, you want people who are going to adopt the organization like literally feel it is a member of their family. And because that term is helpful, because if you think about the difference between, you know, "Sabrina, I'd like you to be my friend" or "Sabrina, I'd like you to adopt me".

You immediately understand the significant difference between these two things. And, you know, if you're going to agree to really be responsible for me, as you would be if you were adopting me, then you understand you can't miss meetings and you can't fail to deliver on what you promised to do because you're responsible for me. And the difference is great. You want people who understand this is going to be in their lives time consuming and a priority. It needs to be that I'm currently on two boards of directors and I'm vice-chair of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

I accepted that role, understanding that it was going to mean I was adopting that organization.

I joined the board over a year ago and I became vice-chair a few months ago, just before COVID. And you know what I understood when COVID hit and there was a lot more work to do and a lot more things and challenges to deal with that I had adopted this organization. So just like if you're adopting a child and suddenly the child gets sick or there's a problem, you understand I've adopted this child. I can't just say, oh, I don't have time like this is what you need.

And I think we don't honour volunteers enough to really help them see that that's what they're getting engaged in. I've been asked to join boards and being horrified when people say things like, "oh, well, you won't have to do much, and if you can't attend meetings a lot, that's OK". No! I mean, can you imagine an adoption agency saying to someone, well, you know, I know you're going to take this kid, but, you know, you can't really provide for them. It doesn't matter. 

Like, no, that would be horrifying. So, you need to honour that. People may not fully appreciate what they're getting into and then really understand if they feel they can't do that and not pressure them into joining. And then once you get those high-level things out of the way, the others you mentioned it earlier, the other things really just fall into place. People attend meetings because they get it.

You know, they've adopted the organization and they make donations as they're able because they appreciate the health of the organization's finances are dependent on donors. And I am one of those people. So it isn't any more disciplinary role that the CEO or director is playing and wagging your finger and reminding a board member that have to do these things. You don't have to tell someone who's adopted a child that they're responsible for its health and its well-being, that they understand that's what they agreed.

And so you don't have to call them every day and say, did you make breakfast for the kid? Like they know that's part of the deal.

When you're bringing on those new members, how do you set those boundaries and expectations with them, should that happen before or after the onboarding process? 

Absolutely during and as I was saying earlier, one of the things that we do,  is frequently we get people on a highway and we don't provide our friends. So we begin a discussion about joining our board and they may begin to realize that it's more than they can commit to or they may not fully understand what's involved. And we need to regularly check-in during the recruitment process and make sure that they understand what's required of them.

One of the best examples of like top-level recruitment that I saw when I was doing my research was an organization that would have an initial conversation with someone and then have a time out, send them something in writing and give them a summary of what's the purpose of the board, what's expected of all members. And if there are some specific expectations of that member, like, we hope what you will do is join a board that's committed to these things for the organization.

And you individually, because of your expertise in something, would also bring that knowledge to the table. You tell them what the term is, how long are you expected to serve? You explain to them that board members are evaluated against these things that are in the written document, the expectations, how the evaluation is done. So it's generally the best method is it's an evaluation of board members by board members. We evaluate each other, for instance, once a year and discuss that.

And that if they then explain just like you would with a job, what would be reasons why they would be asked to step down from the boards. And so, again, what you're framing for them is a sort of start to finish of what would this look like, what would be expected of me, what would be the consequence of not doing those things, or what would be the consequence of various things that are unacceptable in the organization? Or what are our policies around harassment?

What are our policies around conflict of interest and give people the chance to assess themselves and time to consider it. And an easy option to say, you know what, I just can't do this right now or I don't feel I can. And to accept that rather than hear it as oh I need to ramp up the pressure. If somebody says I really just can adopt your organization right now, then honour that. It's much better to have someone who's honest and says, really, I just can't do this and you honour it than you you think, oh, I got to double down because I've got three open positions on the board and I only have three candidates, so I got to make each one of them fit. 

Those will end up being the people that you regret having put on the board. And so there's the easy opt-out. And then once it is agreed that the person will serve and this process, you know, the written piece of this is what we've discussed, need to give them time to look at it.

You may then need to do some back and forth. They may say, well, I don't quite understand this conflict of interest policy. You know, I'm a nurse and you do health care. Does that mean I'm in conflict? Like, you may have issues where you have to walk through what you've given them so that they understand. And then when you agree finally that they would like to join and you would like them to join, the smart organizations actually provide a written document that both sign off on to say, we've agreed on this.

It may be that you need to elect the board members. They may be depending on your bylaws. But prior to going into that election process, you've signed a document which says, if I am elected, I understand this is my role. It's so comforting for both sides to be able to look at something if things go wrong and focus back on that, to focus back on remember that we agreed you would you know, you would do these things.

Remember that we agreed you wouldn't do these things. And we have a bit of a problem because that's not happening. And it gives you the ability, as I say, it's always simpiler to focus on the paper rather than just bring up topics that are difficult 

Based on your experience and when people are deciding on the expectations they want to have for their board members, how involved should these members being a nonprofit's operations? Does it differ depending on the organization or the cause or the type of board that the person wants to have?

All of the above Sabrina it really does through saying earlier, if you are a startup organization and you know and everyone's a volunteer, then chances are people may play more than one role. And this is where, again, even if they're doing operations at one point and sitting on the board at another, it's very important that the organization agree that when you're volunteering on the operations on the front line, you're not a board member, you're a volunteer who's helping with operations. 

When you're in the boardroom as a trustee of the organization, that's a different role. So this is where people can get into trouble, and what it looks like is let's say I'm a board member. I volunteer at a hospice in Toronto as a receptionist. I love that. I love that role. You know, it's you know, it's clearly outlined what my what my responsibilities are, what my time. I go once a week on a Sunday afternoon. I know what's expected of me, but if I were also a board member of that organization and while I'm on reception, I make the decision that I don't like the process that we use to welcome people o I'm just going to change it because I'm a board member. I'm out on line now. I'm I'm taking my decision making role out of the boardroom and affecting it in operations without any consultation with anybody else. And that's not fair to the others in the group. 

So if we're all volunteers and we're all pulling our weight and doing what we can to help the organization and some of us are also board members, we need to be able to say to ourselves, am I behaving right now as I would if I was just the receptionist?

Or am I now thinking I had the right as a board member to make these decisions? And that one can be tough. So it's very important that if somebody is an operational volunteer and a board member, that they understand the different hats they're wearing. And let me give you a really easy example.

Even if you are in an organization that has a highly professional staff who do the day to day, but you do get involved from time to time and things, one of the most perfect examples would be a fundraising event. You're a board member, and at the fundraising event, your responsibility is to set up and run the water station for your walkathon, one of the water stations. And, you know, the event manager who's managing the of the walkathon says go to the corner of these two streets and set up these two tables and get the water bottles ready for the walkers are going to come by and you go to that corner and you think, oh, this is not the right place for a water station.

I'm going to move it two blocks to the south. And you just do that because, well, I'm a board member and I can make decisions. No, no, no, no. Right now you are a water station volunteer. You're not a board member. So you don't get the right to mess up the event plan because you're a board member. 

If the CEO was setting up the water station and she decided, I don't like where it is, I'm going to move it to block she would be out of line because it's not you know, that's not why she's at the water station. She's not there because she's the CEO. She's there because she's helping with the walkathon. And this is one of the areas where people can get into trouble on the operation side. And that's a really simple one. It gets really awkward if you're let's say you're a social service organization and a board member happens to know one of the clients served by the organization and starts to tell the counsellor of that client, you know, how to counsel the client because they know them, know not your role.

Your role is not to get involved in operations in that way as a board member. It's just it's not your role. 

I think that also goes back to the whole communication and expectation that we were talking about earlier in the podcast and that, you know, I'm sure that advice from a board member is welcome, but the timing is also really important too. It's not appropriate to change the way of doing things in the middle of a volunteer event during the middle of your shift.

Yeah, yeah. And it can be a challenge. I know, because the kinds of folks that you really want on the board are passionate and they are both starters and they are willing to roll up their sleeves and do a little extra. But they have to be careful that when they're doing that, they're not forgetting that there's a plan in place and they're now working against it instead of with it.

So before we go today, what is the last piece of advice you have for anyone out there who's about to create their first board? What should they do to be successful?

I think the really simple thing in board recruitment is to ask yourself, why am I involved? Why is this cause important to me? Look at yourself and then look for people like you, not necessarily like you in cultural background or race or education. But remember people who when you say this is the cause, they say, absolutely, I get why this is important. Ask yourself why it's important to you, why does it matter? And then look for people who would answer the question pretty much the same way you would if a person is creating a shelter in their neighbourhood because it really bothers them that people are homeless and living on the street.

Look for others who say it's outrageous that people are homeless and living on the street because that going back to what we've talked about earlier, that passion for the mission is something that you want to discover in people, not try to force on people and look for people who when you say, it bothers me that I walk by old folks who have no home every day and a neighbour says, you're right, Sabrina, that's outrageous.

That's the person you want to recruit because they are in sync with your  passion.
Definitely, for everyone listening out there, always keep in mind passion, communication and being clear about your expectations are very important. So thank you so much Denny for coming on to the show. I'm so glad you're able to speak with me today. And for those listening to get more information on Denny Young and access all his articles, courses, other resources visit his website

And as always, thank you so much for listening. And we'll see you next time on Fundraising  Superheroes.

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By on Aug 13, 2020, 12:00 AM


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