If You Need a Board Member, Recruit a Board Member

If you need a volunteer, recruit a volunteer.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


Policy development is not an occasional board chore
but its chief occupation.[1]

John Carver


Several years ago, the trustees for a regional foundation had a defining moment in a board meeting. Every quarter as they prayed for discernment when approving grant awards, they kept asking, “How could we foster further effectiveness through our grant-making?”

Then this epiphany!

What if we inspired the board members of our grantees to be more effective? If nonprofit ministry boards were more effective, wouldn’t they be more effective stewards of our grants? And with stronger and more highly engaged boards—would not the ministries see more Kingdom impact?

With that mustard seed of an idea, the foundation trustees funded a leadership program for board members. Amazingly, that one board decision—prompted by an effectiveness inquiry—launched a ripple effect of healthy boards throughout the region.

Now fast forward. I’m the board coach for a ministry participating in the leadership program. My coaching assignment was to facilitate a board enrichment session, but the board chair also needed a few minutes for board business. I was grateful, because board coaches can learn much by observing a board meeting, even a brief one.

I was skeptical. Would this robust ministry that frequently said yes to every new opportunity in their needy niche have the discipline to recruit people to the board who

had passion for governance, which often means saying no? Or, as Ralph E. Enlow, Jr., cautions, “Good planning is not the accumulation of everyone’s aspirations. Ultimately, a plan represents the elimination of options.”[2]

Or, like so many boards, would the boardroom be half-empty with people who loved their volunteer roles but frankly were clueless about the Governance Hat?

And why does this matter—recruiting people who are competent in governance?

Our collective misunderstanding about governance roles and responsibilities is ironic. We expect restaurants to have competent chefs. We trust airline pilots to be trained up to the minute and highly competent. We expect theologians to be lifelong learners as they “rightly divide the Word.” Yet, board members, not so much.

Would this ministry, I wondered, have that “warm body to fill a slot” mindset about board recruitment, or perhaps an inappropriate job description for their board members?

According to John Carver, who is widely regarded as the guru of Policy Governance®, the chief occupation of the board is the development of policy. For Christ-centered boards, this means board members invest the bulk of their time in chewing, praying, discerning, and making God-honoring decisions.

“Governing by policy,” writes Carver, “means governing out of policy in the sense that no board activity takes place without reference to policies. Most resolutions in board meetings will be motions to amend the policy structure in some way. Consequently, policy development is not an occasional board chore but its chief occupation.”[3]

So as this ministry’s coach, I was blessed to observe that the foundation’s investment in training was already reaping a dividend in this boardroom! The CEO, who was well-known in the community, asked the board’s counsel on whether or not to accept an invitation to a local politician’s reception (and fundraiser).

I watched as the board members (two college profs, a county executive, a business leader, an influential pastor, an entrepreneur, and others) wrestled with the issue and wordsmithed a succinct policy that would govern the organization’s path through the grey areas of governance in the trenches.

There were no raised eyebrows or rolling eyes. No “this is boring, let’s get to the fun stuff” whining. They engaged. They were thoughtful. And they were good at their governance jobs—competent people doing competent board work.

When it was my turn to facilitate the board enrichment segment, I delivered verbal high-fives and affirmed them for their God-honoring discernment. They understood that in board meetings, their chief occupation was to wear their Governance Hats, not their Volunteer Hats.

Imagine! One foundation board with one agenda item—greater effectiveness—launched a ripple effect of healthy governance.



Avoid airlines that employ rookie pilots who have
passion for aeronautics, but no experience or competence.
Likewise, ensure that you are crystal clear
about the roles and responsibilities of board members
and recruit men and women who have already demonstrated
competence in God-honoring governance.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. View: At your next nominating or governance committee meeting, walk the group through the viewing guide checklists in the ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 1: Recruiting Board Members.[4]
  2. Review: Discuss the 10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards[5]
  3. Delegate: Inspire a board member to help increase the board’s competencies in policy development by reading a book, booklet, or article on Policy Governance®, the term coined by John Carver.[6]



Lord, continue to guide us toward men and women
who are competent in governance and experience joy
in establishing God-honoring policy. Amen.



[1] John Carver, Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations, 3d ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 72.

[2] Ralph E. Enlow Jr., The Leader’s Palette: Seven Primary Colors (Bloomington, IN: WestBow, 2013), 80.

[3] Carver, Boards That Make a Difference, 72.

[4] ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 1: Recruiting Board Members—Leveraging the 4 Phases of Board Recruitment: Cultivation, Recruitment, Orientation, Engagement (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2012), https://www.ecfa.org/ProductDownload.aspx?ProductID=78.

[5] Richard T. Ingram, Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, 3d ed. (Washington, DC: BoardSource, 2015), v-vi.

[6] John Carver and Miriam Mayhew Carver, Basic Principles of Policy Governance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996) This is the first of several booklets (each about 25 pages) in The CarverGuide Series on Effective Governance.

From Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2018, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.