Cultivating strong board members: an active practice

Youth Service recruits, trains, and retains effective members to serve on its nonprofit board

BRATTLEBORO — The area is steeped in nonprofits and their boards. So the statement of Vickie Case, a longtime member of the Youth Services board of directors, that the organization trains people to operate successful boards seems worthy of attention.

So how does Youth Services cultivate its board members?

Rachel Selsky, the current president, said that in Youth Services' case, the board has an “onboarding process” that pairs new members with mentors. That mentor works with the newbie for a year. This relationship includes check-ins after each meeting, with the mentor deciphering acronyms and explaining what the board's role is in the overall function of the organization.

The board also circulates news articles on best practices, said Selsky, who had served on the board for seven years, four of them as president.

She joined the board after attending the Marlboro College Graduate Center's Get on Board Program. Two existing board members also attended that program and helped mentor her, she said.

“We also always look out to the community for people with different skills in different areas who can provide us with that background and technical expertise,” she said.

Selsky said her biggest learning curve was understanding the relationship between the board and the staff.

She wanted it to be a “really strong working relationship,” she said - but, at the same time, she recognized “the strength, experience, expertise, and training of the executive director and all the staff and their work on a day-to-day basis, and that we are playing a small but important role in that and how we can work to support them in the most meaningful way possible.”

Customarily, executive directors are hired by and accountable to a nonprofit organization's board of directors or trustees. In turn, the executive director is charged with advancing the nonprofit's mission and priorities as directed by the board but has responsibility and authority over organization's staff.

Youth Services Executive Director Russell Bradbury-Carlin serves on the boards of two other organizations, and as a staff member at other agencies, he has also worked with their respective boards.

For him, the hallmark of a good board is when it places an emphasis on its training and development of its members' skills. He said he too often has witnessed someone join a board but then be expected to just “figure it out.”

“And I think its really hard to get engaged, much less find your footing,” he said. “I often hear board members say, 'I didn't really know what was going on for like a year.'”

Youth Service's onboarding process is crucial to its success.

As an executive director, Bradbury-Carlin said he also values three characteristics that he sees in engaged board members.

The first characteristic is advocating for the agency beyond coming to meetings and responding to emails. These board members act as a bridge between the agency and the community through a variety of forms, such as asking family members to donate, connecting clients to services, or approaching business owners to become corporate donors.

Being involved in subcommittees is also important, as well as “being a development partner,” he said.

“I think the thing that holds up people on boards is that they think that that simply means they need to ask their friends for money,” he said.

“That's great,” he added. “But that doesn't have to be the only thing.”

“Development is really about helping us foster relationships with a broad array of people, and they might become a volunteer, they might become another board member,” Bradbury-Carlin continued. “Hopefully they'll give, hopefully they'll connect us to people who want to give us money, but it isn't just about getting $100 and that's the end of it.”

“Someone who really gets that is really key,” he said.

Vickie Case's advice to someone joining a board?

Volunteer to help when the organization needs it, she added. Great board members who show up will sit on committees and help develop a strong annual appeals donors list, she added.

“Listen and learn,” she said.

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