Be Clear About What the Board Needs: Often organizations make a blanket statement that they need people of color to serve on the board of directors. Asking board members of color who do not have skills or characteristics that match the organization’s needs to serve as directors can result in disappointments for all parties concerned. Like all candidates, individuals of color should be approached because they have capabilities that are relevant to the organization. Furthermore, having clarity around the needs of the organization will help stimulate constructive thinking by board members, staff, and supporters about candidates they may know who are people of color and who will provide a variety of benefits to the organization.
Asking someone, “Do you know of any people of color to serve on our board of directors?” is very different from asking someone, “We are looking for people with backgrounds in the arts, in the legal arena, and in the financial arena. We are also looking for candidates of color. Do you know any people of color who have arts, legal, or financial backgrounds whom we can contact to serve on our board of directors?”
The board of directors should utilize a “board development grid” to identify the skills and characteristics of the current board members and to identify the areas where they need additional help. Review Sample Board Development Grid.
Ask Current Board Members: It may seem obvious, but one of the most valuable resources to tap for recruiting board members of color are the individuals who currently serve on the board of directors. Regularly ask board members to suggest individuals they know who are people of color who would be good directors. In addition, board members can contact individuals who have relationships with prospective board members of color to get recommendations for prospects. If an organization’s leadership deliberately asks current board members these questions, and clearly communicates the other skills and characteristics needed, board members can often come up with a variety of prospects. If they are not asked, however, they often won’t give the issue the consideration it deserves.
Use an Executive Search Firm: Executive search firms often have databases of people with diverse backgrounds whom they contact about professional placements. These firms are in the business of knowing the backgrounds of individuals. Thus, they can be valuable resources for organizations seeking candidates of color to serve on a board of directors who also have other specific backgrounds, particularly in professional fields (such as accounting or law), which are more likely to employ the services of a search firm. However, many nonprofit organizations find the cost associated with using a search firm to find board candidates prohibitive. If this is the case for your organization, try to be creative about finding less expensive ways to take advantage of the knowledge that a local search firm might have about your community.
For example, do you have an individual on the board of directors who works for a company that regularly utilizes the services of a search firm? Can that individual ask that the next time the company does an executive search, the search firm provide a list of candidates to your nonprofit as a part of the contract?
Ask a search firm to donate its services to your organization for free or reduced costs. While not all search firms will be interested in helping out, some firms are committed to giving back to the community and will understand that garnering goodwill with your organization can benefit them.
Use Local or National Resources: Some communities are fortunate enough to have local resources that help place volunteers with nonprofit organizations. If your organization is in one of those communities, consider taking advantage of the resource. If you’re not sure where to start with this suggestion, try searching the Internet under “nonprofit board volunteers” followed by the name of your city. Several national resources also can be useful, especially for larger organizations. One resource is BoardnetUSA. This online organization (http://www.boardnetusa.org/) matches up its database of 10,000 individuals with nonprofit organizations around the country. Other local resources include chambers of commerce for communities of color.
One-Time Nominating Meeting: One way to broaden the pool of potential applicants to your organization is to deliberately create a mechanism to bring people together who are not currently active with the organization with the sole purpose of identifying prospective board candidates. Invite people who have knowledge of individuals of color in the community to a lunch or an after-work event. (Keep in mind that lunch meetings can preclude people whose jobs don’t allow them to leave the office in the middle of the day.) Call the meeting a “One-Time Nominating Committee Brainstorming Session” and ask them to bring their rolodexes or lists of potential contacts with them. Be sure to prepare for the meeting in advance by providing the meeting participants with a clear list of the things that you are looking for in candidates of color in addition to racial/ethnic diversity. (Compass Point Board Café, http://www.compasspoint.org/.)
Check out the article about Board Access and Empowerment Summit, an event held in October 2009 in the Denver Metro area to help match African-American leaders with nonprofit organizations.
Just as you would ask before recruiting any new boards, consider asking these questions when recruiting board members of color.