Finding the Right Board Members

By Melinda Moore, FCIS, Manager, Corporate Governance, OHA


Many organizations have adopted the leading practice of competency (or skills) based boards.  This is a change from the past when many charitable and public sector boards included board members who were elected or appointed by other organizations.  For example, municipal representatives, a linking board member to a funding agency or organization of volunteers, or other community groups.  Board agreement on the knowledge and experience required through the adoption of a competency matrix allows that matrix to be used as a key tool in the assessment of those who have expressed interest in serving on an organization’s board.  [Further discussion of adopting a competency matrix can be found in the May 2015 edition of Boards.]

One of the challenges of actively recruiting for every board position is in identifying people who have the competencies to provide proper oversight to the organization and who will contribute positively to its governance.

Identifying Candidates

More and more boards are seeking advice about how to find appropriate individuals to nominate to the board.  Sometimes hiring a recruiting specialist to help identify potential board members and develop interview questions is an applicable approach.  Frequently, boards of public sector and charitable organizations advertise in newspapers and other media to generate applications from interested people.  Organizations may ask the executive team and current  directors to reach out across their personal and professional networks.  All outreach should include information on the areas of focus for the recruiting; that is, the competencies being sought and the core interpersonal skills that all board members must have.

Screening Candidates

Regardless of the method used to generate names or applications, screening potential board members is a very important step in the recruiting process.  Selection criteria need to match potential board members to the competencies identified by the board and assess their fit with the culture of the board.  It is important that fit not only focuses on the ability of potential board members to get along with the group, but also critically assesses their capacity to contribute to respectful discourse on the strategic matters facing the organization.

There are numerous ways to assess the compatibility and style of someone being considered for nomination to the board.  An increasingly crucial step is screening candidates through a formal application process.  That process frequently includes standardized requirements for information about the applicant, interviews, and reference checks.

Applicant Information

It’s important to be able to compare different applicants in a fair manner.  A formal application form ensures that each applicant submits comparable information in a similar format so that aesthetic considerations do not affect the screening process.

Applicants may be requested to submit a summary of their backgrounds, employment and other engagements that highlights how their background prepares them to participate in the governance of the organization.  A full resume or CV should not be required as the length and detail of these can vary significantly.

Applicants may also be asked to provide a statement of interest that requires them to link their background to the mission, vision, and goals of the organization.  This type of statement can help the screening committee identify those who understand the strategic direction of the organization and have given careful consideration to how they can contribute to achieving the mission and vision.  This can also help identify those who believe the organization should be moving in a different direction so that those opinions may be further probed during the screening process.

These common written submissions would be screened by the screening committee to select for further consideration those applicants whose backgrounds match the competencies being sought and whose interest statements suggest an understanding of the organization’s goals.


Applicants not known by the organization may be invited for an interview with the screening committee or a select group of board members in order to better understand the applicant’s background, interpersonal style, and ability to fulfill their responsibilities as a board member.

It is not important that all board members  share the same view and perspective as this could impede the board’s ability to have robust, generative discussions on strategic topics.  It is important that all board members have the ability to understand the issues facing the organization and are able to respectfully present their perspectives.

Interviews are an opportunity to engage with an applicant whose interest statement indicated a different view on the direction of the organization.  It gives board members a chance to engage directly and in an authentic manner with someone whose ideas may differ from their own.  Furthermore, if the applicant is not selected for nomination to the board, a genuine interest in their opinion may help soften their opposition to the organization’s plans in future.

Reference Checks

Finally, the  board may wish to request references from each applicant.  Following interviews, this may provide valuable third-party information about those interpersonal characteristics and soft skills that are so important to successful board deliberations.

In summary, selecting the right people is fundamental to creating a board that can govern the organization and lead it to achieve its mission and vision.  Fair, comprehensive processes that invite a wide range of applicants will enable a screening committee to compare the abilities of interested people and increase the likelihood of selecting board members who will enhance the governance and leadership of the organization.


Originally published in Boards, February 2016 © Governance Centre of Excellence; All Rights Reserved