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Board Culture Reset: Authentic with Realistic Expectations

I work with many boards that talk a lot about recruiting new, younger, and more diverse members. But they can’t attract nor retain their candidates of choice. Recruiting for diversity demands slowing down, so you have time to cast a wide net, beyond your usual circle of connections. And establishing specific diversity goals with full board support is key.

Yet recruiting for diversity will only succeed if your board is truly inclusive. Do you make sure everyone is heard during board meetings? How do you deliberately create a warm and compelling board culture? All of this is crucial to successful recruitment and retention of people that don’t necessarily look or think like the majority of the people around the table.

Especially given all the pressing issues that demand our attention, what will make someone devote precious time to your board? Remember the candidates you identify are also being recruited by other non-profits, schools, political and advocacy campaigns, and are busy with work and family. So what will lead them to commit to your board? The mission, you might say. Well, that is part of it. I recently spoke with a man who joined the board of an organization with a mission he truly believed in. He even took on chairing a board committee. But within 3 months he realized it wasn’t a good fit. What he meant was that the board culture wasn’t appealing to him, and he promptly took his volunteering-self elsewhere.

Boards and CEOs can have all the best intentions, and impressive board policies and board packets, but if agendas are stale, if the value of the board is not clear, and celebration of service is rare and tepid, then don’t be surprised if you find yourself with empty seats at the table.

From my vantage point, these two factors change the game: authenticity and realistic expectations.

If board members can be themselves, can laugh and speak based on their own life experiences, they will want to come back. If they feel truly appreciated, and form meaningful relationships with their fellow board members, they will more likely stay. If the unwritten norms of the board allow the diversity in the room to flourish in an authentic way, retention will be real, not just a wish.

If you are looking for commitment, make sure your board expectations are clear and realistic. A simple board job description is a useful tool. And candidates will be relieved to know that your board has term limits, as they probably don’t want to sign up for unlimited service.

Boards do best when they have a pipeline of possible candidates. And once a candidate is invited to join the board, what are your orientation practices? Imagine warmly welcoming new members, while at the same time accepting they might not stick around for 10 years. You can learn something from a board member who brings fresh ideas and perspective even if she or he can only commit to one or two terms.

To attract and retain the new, diverse members you are seeking, start now to incorporate learning, enjoyment and celebration, as well as time and patience to intentionally draw out all voices. All board members will thank you, and your organization will undoubtedly benefit in ways you may not even imagine.

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