Let’s Ask Oprah to Join the Board


Succession planning is identifying, engaging, and developing new leaders to propel the organization’s mission forward. In the last post, we discussed some of the characteristics and skills an organization should look for in a board leader and how to engage them. In this post, we explore who should  be asked and where to find them.

Often during this type of discussion a board member will say, I don’t know any wealthy people or if only we could get a specific wealthy person on our board. Since I live in Chicago, that person is usually Oprah.

At first glance, this does not sound like a bad idea. After all, if Oprah was on the board, she would make a large donation and she would ask all of her wealthy friends to do the same.  Fundraising would be so much easier.  Using this theory some organizations ask influential or wealthy people to join advisory boards as a method of engagement.

This theory has a number of challenges. First, the most effective board member is someone who is familiar with and has a passion for the organization’s mission.  Unless Oprah has a connection to the organization, trying to engage her is a waste of time. Even if you were able to connect and engage her, her participation will be fleeting.  Second, everyone  knows Oprah is wealthy and generous, therefore she is being courted by many. On the other hand, one of the organization’s dedicated program volunteers doesn’t have as many people asking for their involvement and support. Less competition usually leads to better results. Third, one hundred $100 donations are better than one $10,000 donation. One $10,000 donation may be easier to track and require less follow-up, but it also hurts more to lose and is harder to replace than one $100 donation. In addition, diversity and number of donations are indications of the organization’s support in the community.

Organizations looking for new board members should first explore their own networks. Current and former program volunteers are some of the best board members. Past clients are the organization’s success stories and can talk about the programs better than anyone else. Finally, former staff members understand the organization’s accomplishments and challenges. All of these potential leaders believe in the organization and know the need for its work first hand.

As ambassadors, Board members introduce the organization to their friends and colleagues. As these friends become friends of the organization, they should be considered for board membership.

In addition, there are a number of websites that provide forums for organizations to reach out to potential board members. A couple of the best known are  http://www.volunteermatch.org/ and http://www.boardnetusa.org/public/home.asp. Recently, LinkedIn started its own portal:  http://blog.linkedin.com/2012/09/17/board-connect/.  Maintaining a current image on these sites is essential and takes resources, therefore organizations should not use more than two at the same time.

Board members are leaders with passion and organizational knowledge. They develop relationships with fellow leaders as they guide the organization through challenges and milestones. They build programs and connections with other nonprofit leaders. When staff leadership positions open, filling them with current and former board members is a logical option but that transition can lead to obstacles for all parties. We will discuss this transition in the next post.


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