Lessons For Recruiting Top Talent (Hint: Don't Pay Them)

If you think it’s difficult getting the very most desirable candidates to join your team when you’re going to pay them, imagine convincing top talent to join your nonprofit board of directors when you’re going to ask them to give you money, fundraise from their company and friends, and give you expert guidance.

There are lessons to be learned from the experiences of nonprofit leaders who recruit highly talented people from business to serve on boards. In my role bringing together board candidates with the heads of nonprofits based on their mutual interests, I observe them assessing each other to see if it’s a good match. Later, I debrief with each side.

There are factors that are important to candidates in choosing boards, and there are deal-breakers. These lessons can be useful for those of you in business who are

  • on boards and recruiting new board candidates
  • on the other side of the table and being recruited for boards, or
  • hiring for your company

The key factors that people consider in choosing which board they want to go to might also translate to how people choose jobs:

  1. The leadership: the chief executive, the board chair, and how they relate to each other
  2. The people: In the case of boards, it’s the other board members. Will I enjoy working with them--based on meeting a couple of people. Will I learn from them--based on who they are and the diversity of their backgrounds. Are they committed--based on attendance, contributions, and other information?
  3. Size and structure of the board: Is the board structured for effectiveness and efficiency? Is it small enough for me to be a productive participant? How often does the board meet? What are the committees?
  4. Expectations: Essentially, the job description. What is expected of me in terms of a financial contribution, fundraising, attendance at meetings, serving on a committee, and providing other expertise and time?
  5. Challenges: What are the key challenges facing the board and the organization, and how might I be helpful?
  6. Business model: Nonprofits would call this a strategic plan, including core programs, and the revenue model; it’s important to know the size of the budget, the key sources of revenue, and what revenues seem threatened or more promising. This will also tell you about key challenges and how you might be able to add value.
  7. The culture: Visiting the offices and at least one site is important, in addition to meeting a couple of board members in order to see if the organization is a fit for you.

Common deal-breakers tend to be a lack of confidence in the CEO, too large of a board of directors, concern about a problematic board chair (too weak or too dictatorial), tension or factions on the board, a stale board that lacks dynamic turnover, and apathy on the board (potential red flags: lack of board contributions, poor attendance at meetings).

For candidates, I would caution you to be careful not to expect perfection. Just go in with your eyes wide open. Every organization has its challenges. That’s why they need you.

In my experience, the factor that matters most to candidates, in addition to the organization’s mission, is whether the board candidate can add value. People are going to devote precious time and dollars when they join boards, so they are compelled to join boards where they believe that they can truly help to advance the cause. They want to be able to look back in a few years and know that they helped to accomplish something meaningful.

It’s not just a paycheck—whether you’re earning it (on the job) or giving it away (on your nonprofit board!).

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