How to Select First Rate Board Members

by Joan Garry

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The nightmare board member. We’ve all met her. We call her the nightmare board member because we have nightmares about her.

She’s been your colleague at the table. She’s filled out your performance review. And my, does she have a lot of opinions about strategy, operations, and the performance of the receptionist.

Especially for someone who hasn’t stepped foot in your offices or attended a commitee meeting in months.

She checks her iPhone during the program presentation. She asks for explanations she’s already been given multiple times. She badmouths the organization and its leadership outside the boardroom. She doesn’t know an asset from a liability. She has a goldmine rolodex but won’t open it up (not for your organization, at least.) And when discussions of the big upcoming fundraiser come up, you can count on her to ask why you’ve never been able to secure Barbra or Meryl.

How did this nightmare board member find her way to your board in the first place?

More importantly, how can you fix it?

Here’s a solution.

But first, let’s discuss a key thing you’ve been doing wrong. Something that got you into this mess in the first place.

You’re forgetting that board interviews are INTERVIEWS!

Tell the truth. You’ve been in prospect interviews where the prospect couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Right? You’re not interviewing at all. You’re selling.


If you’ve ever heard yourself saying the following in a board interview, you’re doing it wrong:

  1. The time commitment is not onerous. The committees don’t meet that often and a lot of times you can “phone in.”
  2. This is a great organization! (If lucky, the interviewer can tell the prospect why)
  3. The other board members are terrific and lots of fun.
  4. Yes, there is a fundraising commitment, but….

A therapist once told me something important. Insert the word BUT into a sentence and you invalidate every word of the sentence that precedes it. “I love you, but…”

So what’s wrong here?  Almost everything.

You learn nothing about the prospect.

You sound desperate.

You are not honest or clear about the obligations.


So what are the right questions? Before we get to that, here’s what we wish we could ask.

I hope you forward this to your chair of Board Governance right after you read this article.

  • Are you rich?  I mean, like really rich. We need really rich people on our board.
  • Can you assure us that you won’t ask any really stupid questions at a board meeting?
  • Do you really like to hear yourself talk?
  • When someone says something you disagree with, do you either sigh or roll your eyes?
  • How many times in the last month have you been on a conference call, hit the MUTE button, and checked your email?
  • Will you commit to agreeing with absolutely everything I say? (Asked by the E.D.)
  • Do you tend to assume that someone is doing a terrible job until proven otherwise?
  • Does the idea of asking someone for money make your skin crawl?
  • Do you care if you are late for stuff?
  • Note: join the fun and add a comment with a question YOU wish you could ask.  

That was fun.


OK, so let’s get to the meat of it. What questions should you ask in a board interview to get the best possible board members? Here are six critical interview questions for non profit board members.

  • What do you know about our organization? Why are you interested in committing your time and energy to us?
  • What do you think are the characteristics of a great board member?
  • Fundraising is a significant obligation of board service (state give/get clearly). Can you tell us about your experience in fundraising? Here, you need to dig and probe. Helping her daughter sell Girl Scout cookies does not count. Selling wrapping paper for her son? Nope. Ask what it looked like. Ask about comfort level.
  • Would you be willing to attend a lunch with the E.D. in which the goal was to make a major donor ask?
  • Board members bring experience, wisdom, strategic thinking, and their rolodexes.  Can you tell us about yours?  (You’re probing here for who is in it and how willing the prospect is to share it.)
  • What kind of autonomy do you have over your calendar? There will be meetings between board meetings, occasional donor lunches.

If you ask me, the single biggest problem with interviewing board candidates is that they are not interviews at all. Candidates come to “interviews” assuming that the job is theirs if they want it. The committee sells and persuades and typically does not vet the candidate in any substantive way. And real discussions about the fundraising obligation are swept under the rug for fear of chasing a good prospect away.

Come on folks. Can we please remember that board service is a privilege? That working on behalf of your organization is a gift. That public service is core to the betterment of our society.

I’d say “man up,” but that would be sexist.

36 thoughts on “How to Select First Rate Board Members”

  1. In our small non-profit, two “new” board members have asserted that the E.D. has no say or even need to meet prospective board members, as they do not have a vote or “say so”, nor is the E.D. permitted to introduce possible candidates as new board prospects …I have loved this job for over 15 years~and now it feels like the only direction left, is out.

  2. I think you contradict yourself with the last statement, “I’d say “man up,” but that would be sexist” and it really invalidates everything else you shared. Learn to listed to your own advice. The micro inequities that some leaders bring to the table add up, slowly, and can cause deeply rooted disruption to the entire group.

  3. Dear Sighing. The key in your comments is that you LOVE your job. That means you have made a real difference. You are a proven agent of change. Turn that skill and energy to the board; rally a few key board members around you. Give it your best shot. For what it’s worth, during my tenure as an E.D., I saw the selection of board members as one of the most critical parts of my job. Not to get people who liked me or would vote my way. To get diversity of thought, ideas, life experience and skills. To create the strongest group to stand with me as partners in leading the organization. Don’t give up until you have played every card!

  4. Joan. First off love your name. And secondly, love the question. Maybe framed this way. “If you were part of a playgroup as a kid, what kind of member were you?” 🙂

  5. Thank you! Writing that “out loud” helped me realize I am not ready to walk away from this amazing thing we have been building. I am planning to rally our community to affirm to these members~and myself!~ that our basic mission values as they were created 30+ years ago are still relevant and the path we have helped guide the organization on is a fruitful one. If the passion and support is still in the direction I was taught we were intended & I have worked for, I am excited to help guide it there~and if is changing towards something I can not endorse, I will leave knowing I have “played every card”!

  6. “public service is core to the betterment of our society” Love this and believe it to be true!

  7. Amber. So I have this new pet peeve. Everyone over the age of 50 whose nest is empty or who has teenagers and needs to escape should be on a board. Every client of mine is hungry for dedicated, smart board members. They are out there. And they are core to the betterment of society. Indeed.

  8. Dear Deeply Sighing. Thank you for offering me this feedback. One of the reasons I write weekly is to advocate, champion and motivate board leaders. I can’t tell you how gratifying this response is to me. Made my day. Go for it and keep up the good work!!!!!

  9. Deeply Sighing, I feel your pain. Since 2005, I’ve been at the E.D. job I love, a trade assoc. where I’d been a longtime volunteer (president in 1982). A couple weeks ago, our nominating committee chair told me the reason he’s having so much trouble getting anybody to step up to a Board position is that I “scare them away” and that I should stay out of it. (After his pursuits with Joan’s “wrong way” interview questions, I had asked more pertinent questions.) In spite of a job description that holds me responsible for board productivity, he wants me back in the office (one person operation) serving as everybody’s admin. Trouble is, he has the ear of our current president. And I’m feeling crushed.

  10. I always ask what role they typically find themselves taking when working in a group. That usually gives me some idea.

  11. Jamie – a most excellent question. In the same vein as my play group question but so important. Board members are usually important and powerful and used to having a booming voice in a room. Board Dynamica are so different

  12. Joan, let me tell ya, this was a good one. Great questions, used them just yesterday. Being direct at the beginning with potential new board members is just smart. No headaches down the road. Thanks again for some excellent advice. LP

  13. not sure of the size of your board or organization but i’m hoping that a few board members are leading the charge to add board members – a recruitment committee. they would do the first interview. then the board chair. final stop with the E.D. or maybe the two of them together. unless E.D. is a voting member of the board, the E.D. can weigh in and register strong concerns against that the group can take into consideration. ultimately voting a new board member in is the purview of the board.

  14. Thanks for the tips! Working on this exact thing now and was feeling a little lost on where to start 🙂
    I’ll be searching your site shortly for creating a board intro packet!

  15. Joan –
    Love this piece; the bluntness of it is especially appreciated with my struggling board. In your opinion, what is the E.D.’s role in board recruitment? We have board members who say it’s entirely the E.D.’s job, other board members who want to confine it to their social networks and no E.D. involvement- all the while, we’ve been “functioning” at around 50% capacity for the last two years (I’ve only been involved one year). As an E.D. who is passionate about her cause it’s incredibly frustrating.
    Your thoughts are much appreciated.

  16. Absolutely agree: focus on building a TEAM whose “diversity of thought, ideas, life experience and skills” broadly represents your community — AND their trusteeship of your nonprofit FOR the community!

  17. As a former ED, I think the ED should help develop, or at least be on board with, the overall recruiting strategy and be part of the interview process in the early stage.
    It’s little consolation, but “Feeling Crushed” above is not alone. I shared their experience. My board kept recruiting people like themselves who really didn’t connect to our mission as written, only to an ancillary activity (fundraiser bike rides). They did not want to be a fundraising board. I, the ED, was involved in recruiting late in the game, if at all, and my more pointed questions and recruiting criteria (like these in this post) were perceived as buzzkillers. It is very difficult to report to the board and be responsible for its productivity and organizational development, when that board really wants you to be their back office admin and fundraise your own salary. I’m burned out on nonprofit work after my stints with low performing boards.

  18. I love this article. As a fairly new board chair of a therapeutic riding program I find it to be one of the most difficult tasks to find other board members who want to do more then just “sit” on a board. My one questions would be how do you say no to a prospective board member who you do not feel would fit it. They may still make a good volunteer for the organization so I hate to burn bridges.

  19. First, make NO promises during the recruitment and interview process. I have seen bridges burned because of an assumed spot on the board. And if your gut says it’s a bad fit, pay attention!! Come up with some reason that could make sense. Too many folks in the pipeline? Looking for a particular set of skills. Let the person know of your appreciation of her interest and brainstorm possibly volunteer opportunities that feel hefty enough to be a strong consolation prize

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