appleBoard Development

Board development is a cycle that includes:

  • Recruiting board members
  • Holding elections
  • Providing ongoing support and recognition
  • Providing board orientation and training
  • Succession planning


Recruitment is a key part of the organizational development cycle. Recruiting is not just about how, but who and what—who do you want on your board and what skills and qualities are you seeking to help govern your organization. Recruitment should be an ongoing process for boards so that ideally when it’s time to select new members organizations have a pool of skilled, appropriate and diverse individuals to draw from.

While some organizations have recruiting protocols similar to hiring paid staff such as advertising and interviewing, others keep the process more informal. Regardless of the approach, boards at a minimum should:

  • Assess their needs in terms of skills, experience and diversity
  • Have clear board job descriptions
  • Have an application and screening process

Some boards have specific requirements in terms of representation. For example, regional literacy networks in Ontario are expected to have at least 50 % of their board members from literacy agencies. CLO has a regional board structure where board members must come from all the diverse regions of the province. Other non-profit organizations may have bylaws that specify representation based on gender, culture, geography and/or age. Boards may also have designated seats for clients. During the recruiting process, boards need to ensure that any designated positions or representatives are covered. Regardless of what interests and organizations your board members represent, they are expected to act in the best interests of your organization

Other attributes boards look for when recruiting are related to skills. For example, a board may want to have someone experienced in finance and accounting or public relations and marketing. Professional, such as accountants and lawyers who hold volunteer positions on a board can be valuable because of the expertise they bring, but it’s important not to treat this as free access to services and advice.

When recruiting members, boards will also want to take into consideration personal characteristics. These characteristics are often listed in the job description and can include:

  • Dedication
  • Ability to make a time commitment
  • Good judgement
  • Strong  communication skills
  • Compassion and respect for others
  • Willingness to learn
  • Ability to work well with others
  • A sense of wider community and passion for the mission of the organization

Past experience on other non-profit boards can also be an asset. Once you know what you need on the board, compare that to what you currently have and what you expect to have in the near future. Recruitment efforts should then focus on the gaps.

In the end, a substantial board that is comprised of talented, forward-thinking and connected individuals can give your organization the profile it needs to get things done. In the words of one Community Literacy of Ontario board member, find the best people you can and ask them to “give everything they’ve got to your organization.”

A board composition analysis tool related to recruitment can be found in Board Building: Recruiting and Developing Effective Board Members for Not-for-Profit Organizations from The Muttart Foundation. It lists general criteria (i.e., being a willing team member), specific criteria (i.e., fundraising skills) and a desired community balance (i.e., contributing to the urban/rural mix). It provides a chart to make notes and track criteria met by current board members and criteria required from new board members.

Ideas for recruiting potential board members include advertising and outreach to:

  • The broader membership of the organization
  • Friends, family and associates of current board members
  • Associations and stakeholder organizations affiliated with the organization’s target population/client base
  • The business and corporate community
  • Other volunteer organizations and service clubs
  • Faith-based organizations
  • Educational organizations and institutions
  • Volunteer centres and online volunteer database organizations
  • The community-at-large during special events, fundraising activities, etc.

Be sure use your social media accounts to recruit board members. Post that you are seeking board members, share stories of agency successes and board member achievements, and follow the social media accounts of people and organizations that you would like to have on your board.

Some organizations hold open houses where they provide information about what the organization is about and how people can get involved. Having a package of materials (both in print form and on your website) to distribute to prospective board members (and also ready for those who may contact you looking to get involved!) can help with recruitment efforts. It can include items such as a:

  • Links to your organization’s website and social media accounts
  • Board member job description
  • Brochure or pamphlet about the organization
  • Information about board time commitment, meetings, committee and other organization events
  • Copy of the most recent annual report
  • Copy of recent newsletter of the organization
  • Business card of the Executive Director with email and website link
  • Orientation and development opportunities
  • List of other board members
  • Summary of major funding sources
  • Board member application form

Potential board members can be invited to visit the organization, attend an event or attend an upcoming board meeting. Be sure to encourage them to follow your social media accounts to learn more about the great work that you do. They should then complete an application form.

If the potential members appear to be a good match for the organization, the next steps in the selection process, which usually includes nomination and election, should be explained. Boards need to keep in mind that people who say no now may say yes in the future so they should continue to keep connected with potential board members who are a good match for the organization and consider having them join a committee or help out at a special event.


The role of selecting and recommending new board members usually falls to the nominating committee of the board. Even in policy-governance structured organizations with few or no committees, a nominating committee often exists. Some boards have replaced a nominating committee with a governance committee. In both situations, the work focuses on identifying gaps and recruiting skilled individuals.

Nominating committees should work throughout the year, not just as board vacancies and Annual General Meetings approach. The committee is responsible for identifying potential candidates to fill vacancies and any gaps identified. Ideally, more candidates are recruited than there are positions available so that an election, rather than acclamation, occurs. In this instance it’s important that candidates are aware of the nominating and election process and that just because they have been recruited doesn’t mean they will automatically be elected or appointed to the board.

The nominating committee usually prepares a slate of candidates that is presented to members at an Annual General Meeting for voting. Members cast their votes for the candidate(s) of their choice, and the board is formed. This process is always the responsibility of the membership, the board and the nominating committee although staff may be asked to play a supporting role.

The nominating and election process can sometimes be an awkward one for non-profit organizations, especially if no one is experienced or familiar with the procedures. Herb Perry’s Call to Order: Meeting Rules and Procedures for Non-Profit Organizations provides a reader-friendly overview of election rules and voting methods.

Support and Recognition

Once a board has recruited and selected board members it will want to keep them! Building in support and recognition will make members feel valued and loyal to the organization. Volunteer websites and organizations have countless ideas for recognition. CLO’s online training module on volunteer recruitment provides a number of ideas for volunteer recognition.

Social media provides an excellent way to recognize your board. Share out stories and pictures of board successes (with permission of course), and highlight the great work of the board.

AGMs are often a good time to publically recognize the work of board members through a gift, a certificate or a thank you note. Throughout the year board members can be recognized and supported through training opportunities which show the person their contribution is valuable and worth the time and money associated with training and professional development.

Board mentorship is another way to support new members and to show how the skills and knowledge of existing members are valued. Mentoring is in addition to, and a complement to, the governance training and orientation provided to members.

The Maytree Foundation of Ontario produced a board mentoring handbook that talked about activities, benefits and steps to mentoring. It offers a semi-structured program that involves a one-on-one mentoring relationship between a new board member and a more experienced board member that takes place face-to-face, over the phone and online for a total of nine hours over a six-month period.



Orientation occurs when a new member joins a board, and training occurs throughout the term of the board. Both are important for sustaining members’ interest and contributing to a healthy organization.

Orientation may take the form of a meeting or workshop complemented by a manual or guidebook. Whatever the format, it is more than just reviewing the organization’s policies. It includes discussion about the values and mission of the organization, details about governance and bylaws, information about committees, and getting familiar with the organization’s office and staff.

Each board member should be given his or her own copy of a board member orientation manual. As well, the manual could be posted online for easy access. It could also be the basis for an informal orientation process. Ideally, orientation should occur prior to a member’s first meeting, but realistically this often occurs at some point during the first few months of a new term. It may be led by staff or senior board members and can be beneficial to returning members as well.

An orientation manual will contain a variety of resources but should at a minimum contain:

  • The organization’s mission statement
  • A history of the organization
  • A description of the board’s governance structure and operations
  • Meeting dates and format
  • Board member job descriptions
  • Bylaws
  • Policies and procedures, especially related to board meetings and directors
  • The most recent copy of the organization’s strategic plan
  • The most recent copy of the organization’s budget and other financial information such as core funders
  • A list and description of the board’s committees and their terms of reference
  • Information about membership
  • Minutes of recent meetings and the last AGM
  • Contact information for each director and staff
  • Forms related to board members such as expense forms

If it seems overwhelming to print and bind all this information, boards should consider loading the documents onto a CD or memory stick or posting documents on an organizational website or wiki. Once the main orientation has been completed, a personal check in with new members should occur three to six months later to see if further support is needed. As well, hosting a special “meet and greet” session for new board members, and/or a social event, go a long way to breaking the ice and making new board members feel included from the start.


Boards should think outside the box when it comes to training. Retreats, online courses, podcasts, online training and attending conferences are alternatives to tried and true workshops and guest speakers.

Elizabeth DeBergh, former CLO board member and the Executive Director of the Wellington County Learning Centre in Arthur, Ontario, believes strongly in social activities and interaction with her board as a form of orientation and team building.  Ideas she suggests include:

  • Taking the board to tour a company or business in the area
  • Taking a historical tour of the region it serves
  • Having a BBQ and inviting board members to bring their significant other and family
  • Making a float for board members to join a holiday parade
  • Planning golfing days and/or a tournament
  • Holding a book exchange amongst board members
  • Inviting board members’ families to the Annual General Meeting or other organizational events
  • Getting together to socialize at a unique restaurant or coffee shop

For skill-specific training, conduct regular surveys with board members to determine their training needs and plan accordingly. Training topics may coincide with trends and challenges facing organizations (e.g., fundraising or risk management) but should also focus on continuous learning required and related to board development and the organization’s specific governance structure. Also, look to evaluations and feedback from previous training sessions that board members rated as useful and valuable for training topic ideas. You may also learn what might be useful through your regular board evaluation processes.

A definite “must” is for boards to provide training on understanding the governance structure and how to operate within that structure.

Other possible training topics for boards could include:

  • Board evaluation
  • Special event management
  • Working with teams
  • Conflict management
  • Advocacy
  • Organizational ethics
  • Cultural diversity
  • Strategic planning
  • Effective communication and social media

If an organization has a budget or has individual board members interested in investing in their own professional development, specific training can include how to chair effective meetings, how to take meeting minutes, working with financial software, etc. As well, don’t overlook the skills of board members who may be able to provide in-service training on a variety of topics.

Organizations in your community such as the United Way or a local volunteer centre may offer training opportunities for board members. Compass Point has an article posted on its website about unique ideas for board retreats: Where to Have a Board Retreat.

Be creative! Many training topics are freely available online as downloadable print resources, online videos, online conferences, podcasts, webinars or online training courses.

Succession Planning

As the baby boom generation nears retirement and the competition for volunteers increases, it’s safe to say the need for succession planning in non-profit organizations will become increasingly important. Succession planning means not only preparing for the loss of key positions but also being pro-active. Organizations need to ensure they are able to retain leadership, skills and experience, while at the same time allow for growth and introduction of new people. Succession planning also looks at the current and future needs of an organization so that work can be done to ensure staff and board members are recruited to match those needs.

Part of ensuring the good health of an organization is having a good balance of new and experienced board members. We all know stories about organizations that have a ‘lifetime’ board member, someone who is not interested in retiring and yet is not bringing fresh life to the organization. Or what about the horror of having all experienced board members leave at the same time, taking the skills, knowledge and background of the organization with them?

Planning for board succession can be incorporated into the strategic planning of an organization and should be a regular part of board meetings. The board as a whole and the organization’s Executive Director should be involved in the succession planning process. The plan should look three to five years into the future and be reviewed annually. It’s also important incoming board members know what is in the plan.

Literacy Link South Central and Community Literacy of Ontario engaged in a partnership to develop an online module on Succession Planning. It includes a variety of generic tools, including an agency succession planning needs assessment and a succession planning policy template.

The kit notes the first step in succession planning is to determine what you already have in place at your organization and then determine the gaps. The needs assessment includes 40 questions, including:

  • How well informed and up-to-speed is the board on the issues, trends and challenges facing the agency?
  • Does the board know where corporate records are kept in the office?
  • Does the board secretary or chair keep a separate copy of board corporate records, such as letters of incorporation and letters patent, off-site?
  • Does the board have, or do they know who to ask, to easily get a list of key stakeholders for crisis/emergency/transition communications?
  • Does a board member and/or key staff member have an extra copy of the office keys?
  • Is there a staff person designated as board liaison in the absence of the Executive Director?

Who is responsible for succession planning in an organization depends largely on its governance structure. For example, in a policy-governance model the board is responsible for preparing for succession related to the organization’s management (i.e., Executive Director) and key board positions. The ED is usually responsible for succession planning for other staff.

Charity Village suggests that organizations take the following steps in a succession planning process:

  1. Develop a list of key positions, volunteer and paid, who could disrupt the execution of your strategic plan and its components by their departure.
  2. Develop an inventory of skill sets required for each key position.
  3. Identify current staff or volunteers who could step up to replace a vacancy, either on a temporary or long-term basis.
  4. Document sources of people with the required skills, either on a temporary or long-term basis.
  5. Document what information will need to be readily accessible to those choosing the successor and for the successor.

The First Non-Profit Foundation based in Chicago has developed a series of transition papers for non-profit organizations including Sustaining Great Leadership: Succession Planning for Non-profit Organizations by Tom Adams.

pencil Activity

Have your current board members develop your board recruitment materials. Devote a special meeting (or part of a meeting) to the board development process each year. Use the following questions and format adapted from How to Be a Winning Board by the Alberta Association of Rehabilitation Centres to understand the benefits of being a board member.

Ask current members the following questions:

  1. What attracted you to become a board member with the organization?
  2. What do you find most rewarding about your role on the board?
  3. How can the board make board roles more attractive to both current and prospective board members?
  4. What things make you feel valuable as a board member?
  5. What activities do you feel are appropriate for you to be involved in on the board? What activities do you think aren’t appropriate?

Record the answers on a flip chart (you may consider having board members complete these questions privately and then present the collated data to the whole board). Encourage group discussion about the items. Write up the results in a summarized format. The results will be useful for promoting positive benefits of being involved on the board but also to help identify improvements that could encourage greater participation from current members.

Additional Resources

  1. Caution: Do Not Inflate Beyond Capacity: A Network’s Guide to Responsible Growth and Stakeholder Communication. Literacy Link South Central. A strategic planning resource with a focus on growth that results in increasing your stakeholder base.
  2. Succession Planning and Sustainability in Non-profit Organizations. The second in a series concerning leadership succession planning from the Executive Transitions Initiative by Mindy Lubar Price.
  3. National Council of Nonprofits Finding the Right Board Members for Your Nonprofit
  4. Board Building: Recruiting and Developing Effective Boards, The Muttart Foundation.
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