Are you lying to your nonprofit board members?I’m not sure why it is, but so many of us outright lie when we invite people to our nonprofit board. We tell them, “It won’t be a lot of work. And it will be alot of fun.”

But neither are totally true. Board work is work. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s routine. And, yes, sometimes it is fun.

I consistently get board members signing up for coaching because they were invited to a little more than a social club and blindsided when they are told they need to sell $1000 gala tickets. They feel a bit duped. They love the cause but had no idea of the commitments they were going to be expected to make. I love working with these people, but no one should be treated this way.

When I teach major gift fundraising, I encourage fundraisers to ask for the full dollar amount. I want donors to get a “deer in the headlights” look; to realize we’re asking them to prioritize giving to our organization. When you invite someone to the board, it’s the same thing. You’re asking them to make your organization a priority. Don’t apologize for asking a prospective board member to prioritize your nonprofit. (Click here to tweet that.)

Reasons for lying

Just like I don’t believe tens of thousands of nonprofit board members are deliberately choosing to under-perform, I also don’t believe thousands of nonprofit leaders are deliberately trying to deceive prospective board members. In my experience, there are four primary reasons why nonprofit staff and the other board members end up being so sloppily in board recruitment:

  1. We are ashamed of their nonprofit

    Many of us in nonprofits have a real self-image problem. Deep down, we don’t really believe our organization or cause is worth it. Oh, we’d argue that until we’re blue in the face. But we are so shockingly meek at asking for commitments – either from donors or from board members – that our actions are speaking far louder than our words.

    If your mission is worth your time and effort, respect others enough to let them decide if it’s worth theirs by making a solid invitation. I like how Simone Joyaux advocates asking prospective board members if they are ready to inconvenience themselves for the board. That kind of question takes guts. Would you be able to ask it?

  2. We’re just trying to fill positions

    This is the second biggest reason we tell people it won’t be a lot of work. Our by-laws require a certain number of board members and we have to fill the slots. It’s a “quantity over quality” issue. We just need butts in seats.

    The good news? Quality volunteers see right through this. And they aren’t going for it. Quality volunteers and donors want real tasks and roles, not seat-warming responsibilities.

  3. We’re not clear on what the board is supposed to do

    At one point in history, board members were mostly social clubs. You joined to be around other influential people, not necessarily to really advance a cause. They’d meet regularly, passively rubber stamp reports read to them, and go out for drinks after. But those days are over. Today nonprofits need boards to provide oversight to the mission, to supportively ask tough questions, to be visible ambassadors sharing the story with others, and to be the leading examples in giving sacrificially.

    The good news? If you’re frustrated with your board, it’s probably your fault. You’ve gotten the board your efforts and clarity deserve. The good news? You can fix it. It takes time, but it can be done. Many of your board members are frustrated with merely rubber stamping too! Get them to be your allies in this change.

  4. We don’t know exactly why we’re recruiting them

    A corollary of #2 and #3 is that we’re not really clear on why we’re asking that prospect to join our board. We think we basically need someone who can “Fog a mirror” so we look for the most influential fogger we can find. We don’t ask them to inconvenience themselves because we don’t see what they’d get out of it.

    The good news? People are looking for meaning in their lives now more than ever. Serving on a nonprofit board can help them find that meaning. What can be really helpful is to sit down with your staff and board leaders and brainstorm what you want from the board.

    • What kind of diversity will help your board? Should it reflect the demographic mix of the people you serve?
    • What kind of life stages will help you nonprofit live out it’s mission? Empty nesters? Boomers? Xers? Millienials? Parents? Grandparents? Single?
    • What kind of skill sets do you need to help guide your nonprofit? Marketing? Organizational? Legal? Event planner? Philanthropist? Visionary? Quiet worker? Passionate advocates?
    • Do you want specific geographic representation? Perhaps people from each region in your service area? Or in specific ZIP codes or communities?

    Create a grid with those characteristics as columns across the top and existing board member names in the rows down the side. Check off what each board member brings and identify the qualities needed.

    The good news? This will help you be incredibly specific in your board recruitment. No longer will you feel like shuffling your feet, looking at the ground, and mumbling, “Do you want to join our board?” Now you’ll have the polite confidence to say, “Jane, we’re looking for a person just like you” and explain why.

    Which ask would you respond better to?

Be warned: people will say no

Just like in asking for money, people will say “no.” Traditional major gift fundraising theory says it takes 3-5 prospects for each gift you’re trying to get. Why wouldn’t it take at least that for excellent board members? (And if we’re honest, some of the board members that said “yes” with their words are really saying “no” by not even showing up at meetings!)

Unless you’re arrogant and pushy, no’s are rarely “forever” no’s. They’re usually either a timing issue or a lack of experience. If someone you really want on your nonprofit board tells you no, be ready with a couple other ways to they can get involved. Maybe it’s working on a committee or task force. Maybe it’s cleaning a trail or reading to kids or giving their feedback on a plan. Let them get to know more about you.

Some resources to help

This type of culture shift will take time and effort. But your nonprofit is worth the effort. And it can be done, even in small communities. And you’ll need to revisit this periodically. Different organizations need different boards. (I wrote a post about this called out The Folk Dance of Nonprofit Organizational Development.)

There are lots of great books on building a better nonprofit board. Books like Gail Perry’s Fired Up Fundraising, Carole Weisman’s Secrets of Successful Boards, and Simone Joyaux’s Firing Lousy Board Members.

Not a reader? Many of these authors have done speeches, podcasts, and webinars. For example, Gail and Simone have trainings in The Nonprofit Academy: Fire Up Your Board: Turn Their Passion into Action and Firing Lousy Board Members.

It can be really helpful to have an outside person like one of these authors, me, or a local consultant come in too. That way you can let the outsider be the bad guy but say the things that need to be said. (If this sounds helpful, Google those authors or send me an email at

This takes effort. But your sanity, and the work of your nonprofit, is worth it!

What other board training tools, books, or tips would you include? Let us know in the comments!

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