You’ve just started a local not-for-profit, with a budget under $250,000. While your mission ties into global concerns, your goals are strictly local. One of your statutory needs is a board of directors. Who do you recruit?

Well, I need money!
When organizations get going, the first thing they always think is “who do I know with money.” Plus everyone is telling you that you need “movers and shakers” on your board, or in the excellent turn of phrase I just read, “civic reach.”

I have some bad news for you. The people with influence aren’t interested in your little effort, because it doesn’t match them in prestige. The people with money are cautious. There’s a reason a lot of rich people are conservative in their politics–they like to conserve things, like their money. And if neither of these statements is true for your organization–you know rich and/or influential people who believe in you–they still don’t need to be on your start up board.

Money and influence are not the only things that nfps need from the boards, and for a start-up board, I would put both way down the list.

When starting a not-for-profit business, the very first thing you need from your board of directors is space. You need room to implement your vision; you don’t want to spend the first year or two trying to bring your board around to your point of view. And those rich, influential people who have been so helpful in the initial phase are as likely as not to start flexing their muscles once they are your bosses, which is essentially what a nfp board does–it supervises the Executive Director.

So what about my volunteers?
The thing about your first board, is that it’s going to need to turn into your second board. If you’ve filled it with the friends and fellow travelers who are performing staff functions as volunteers, then you are stuck with them. Now your board is that disastrous monster called the “working board.” Your board is not your staff. Plus, now you have no room on the board for those movers and shakers you’re meeting, because it’s filled with people who don’t satisfy prestige needs (sorry), and your friends and volunteers don’t want to set a minimum board gift (or they want to set it too low), because they can’t meet it. This is how you end up with boards that never give you any money.

Well, if I can’t use my volunteers, and I can’t ask the people with money and influence, who’s left?
Everyone else you know. Your coworker in the neighboring department who you know is interested in your issue. Your brother-in-law. Yourself. Your childhood friend. People that you unassailably trust who know that they are the start-up board (don’t be shy about stating this upfront). Make it small- when you incorporate you need 3 people, not 12, so just find three, which is really two, because one of them is you. Definitely not more than 5.

This frees you, this board, and your core volunteers to make board recruitment a major task, to be approached with caution and deliberation. It gives you a chance to sound out those movers and shakers, to see who might be a good board member, who might be better on an advisory board, and who is a ninja (silent, but deadly). It leaves the core volunteers free to be hired as staff, if that’s what you need, or to gracefully separate themselves from the organization, if that’s what they need.