Trouble hooking board members? Play the career card.

By Ryan Galloway
With over 1.4 million non-profits operating in the US, it’s no wonder qualified board members are in short supply. That shortage has spawned lots of articles like this one, offering well-intentioned advice for non-profits struggling to find the right leadership. Few if any, though, mention using what might be the most compelling argument of all: Board membership can benefit an executive’s career.

It’s not a simple editorial oversight, either. In the non-profit world, “careerism” is still very much a dirty word. That narrow-mindedness goes a long way toward explaining why even as a leadership shortage looms, NPOs’ recruiting strategies remain unchanged. Most continue to cling to the idea that the only effective way to attract board members is focusing on how the organization’s mission aligns with a candidate’s passions and interests.

Certainly, common priorities matter in uncovering leadership that fits. But shared interests alone aren’t likely to close the deal, given how much time and effort is involved in gig. To land top-notch leadership in an increasingly competitive space non-profits are going to have to appeal to a different kind of self-interest too.

Doing so will leverage a much larger arsenal of incentives—incentives that are powerful indeed. According to a 2013 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteering can improve professionals’ job prospects by almost 30 percent. In the case of board members, much of this boost likely comes from the relationship capital gained by making new and valuable connections. Adding or strengthening skills like strategic planning and budgetary oversight are great resume builders as well. And for executives looking to become thought leaders, the publicity and accolades that come with an NPO board seat can be invaluable. These benefits would be particularly enticing to young professionals, who just happen to be increasingly coveted by NPO boards.

Of course, non-profits can’t exactly be unsubtle about pushing these incentives to prospective board members. The cause, after all, always comes first. But why can’t making it worth their while be a close second? 

Ryan Galloway oversees content for The Hired Guns, a digital marketing and talent consulting firm in New York City. He has written for Business Insider and This is his second piece for RelSci.

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