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Sep 12, 2023
Posted Under: Governance President's letter

Decades into recommending a board matrix to focus on recruiting “the right people at the right time to serve mission” (as we say in the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model), it dawned on me several years ago that when the data on board diversity still had not shifted, perhaps one of the problems is that the tool many groups are using to actually diversify the board is broken. Turns out, the tool itself may be fine, but if the users (you and me) are not implementing it with clear intentions, it will inevitably maintain the status quo in the boardroom.

To be fair, that may be exactly what you are after, but again, many groups actually turn to the matrix to purposefully engage diverse individuals in the room based not just on demographics but on lived experiences, skills and talents, backgrounds and access to constituencies, inter-personal characteristics, and work styles. And those intentions should be applauded for important reasons. To be sure, both historically and right now our boards are not places of great cultural, racial, or age diversity, and in many cases, gender diversity is also lacking. We know that one of the most important roles of a board is to hire and partner with the executive director/CEO. If our boardrooms lack diversity, then the chances for increased amounts of unconscious bias to seep into the hiring and partnering process is more likely to perpetuate a long-standing lack of racial and other forms of diversity in nonprofit leadership.

The ripple effect of a lack of diversity in both the board and staff leadership spaces is well documented and shows organizations have more barriers to climb in raising money, gaining a seat at other decision-making tables, influencing public policy, and in cases where the majority of front-line staff are much more diverse, connecting and being an authentic and trusted leader with those they lead. I am only scratching the surface of the importance here. If you want to learn more about this research, check out our friends at Building Movements Project or the latest from BoardSource, Leading with Intent, to name just two options.

Of course, the sole problems cannot be blamed on a matrix tool. They are much deeper and more complex than that, and we have to come at this challenge in a variety of ways including lessening the barriers to access as we are attempting to do with our Alaska Board Match site. This project has the stated intention of lessening the barriers to access that so many face when trying to be involved in causes and missions that matter to them while also encouraging boards to be more “on purpose” with their recruitment.

We also encourage you to think bigger than the approach to board service of “find – place – learn by osmosis – hope they don’t fail,” which usually just translates to asking someone you know to be on the board. Instead, lean into an overall board succession plan, which focuses on “strategic recruitment – thoughtful engagement – graceful exit” and all the steps necessary to make that happen. This go-slow-to-go-fast plan is meant to be lived in real time to guide the board and board governance/improvement/development committee in their work.

So, should you use a board recruitment matrix as a piece of your board succession plan? Yes! However, to use it well, and by that I mean to get the intended results you are hoping for, you and your team likely need to use it differently from the way you have in the past.

There are many advantages to using a board recruitment matrix including:

  • the ability to recruit beyond the “usual prospects” in the community;
  • the ability to take recruitment out of one person’s hands or personal discernment of who they think should be on the board;
  • the ability to think beyond “the superstars” and to build a “constellation” of team members whose skills, talents, lived experiences, etc. ensure more accurate decision-making for the mission;
  • the ability to strategically align the board to the diversity intention within the organization;
  • the ability to institutionalize succession planning in the organization;
  • the ability to vet prospective board candidates through a standardized process; and
  • the ability to knowingly recruit not just people with interest, but people who will work to achieve the goals of the organization.

But here is where most groups get the process off track – likely unintentionally. A board recruitment matrix is not a one-size-fits-all document. Rather, it can be used in one of three ways:

  1. To maintain the status quo
  2. As a boundary spanner tool to help your mission connect to the people, groups, geography, etc., and to bring more meaning and lived experiences into the decision-making space
  3. As a purposeful creative disruptor tool

When would I use each?

Intention When would the board use it? Watch out – be careful
Status Quo
  • If you already have a strong constellation of people who bring a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and skills, and who reflect the community you serve well with great engagement and energy – wonderful!
  • If all is well and your team is feeling grounded and ready to do the work of board service – great job. Keep it up and build from this place of success by identifying and documenting the ways that it is working so you can keep doing it.
Watch out! Don’t take this team for granted.

Be careful! If you use the same matrix as you have always used it, you will get exactly what you have.

Boundary spanner
  • Focus here if you want to see change in the diverse composition of the team and want to have more people who have lived the experience of the mission in the decision-making space.
  • Use to position the organization to be more “with” and “within” the community rather than an entity that provides services “at,” “for,” and “to.” (This goal is often shorthand for “nothing about us without us.)
  • If this is important to your team, it can can look like intentionally inviting people into the boardroom who bridge gaps and create new access to understanding people and places in more authentic and direct ways.
Watch out! Extra care is needed to ensure engagement is win-win-win for the mission the board stewards, the person being asked to serve, and the community overall.

Be careful! This work requires intentionality that only begins with identification in the matrix and requires many more steps in the recruitment and engagement space for authentic relationships to flourish.

Creative disruptor
  • Focus here if the team needs to consciously disrupt the board composition because the organization has changed dominant funding streams or has endured a founder transition or something else that requires very different kinds of experience, qualities, and engagement from the next generation of board members.
Watch out! This is not a “coup” devise.

Be careful! This must be a conscious decision made by the current board (and executive) to pivot based on the new realities, and it will likely take at least three rotations of board service to achieve without causing immediate harm or loss of momentum for the organization.


Whichever path your team chooses, the goal is to do it on purpose. It can’t be understated how important it is to get the board composition right since the quality of the board is the biggest influence on the quality of the organization. If the board is lacking engagement or struggling, the organization will struggle and no amount of great staff work can lessen that effect in the long term.

What’s next?

Once you have determined your goal of status quo, boundary spanner, or creative disruptor, you will find steps here to populate your matrix.

Want to take your matrix to the level of active recruitment? Then you have one tool to create in the planning process.

The final step is to create one more “mini matrix” to live during active recruitment cycles. You will take the following steps with this tool:

  1. Based on your intention of status quo, boundary spanner, or creative disruptor, copy and paste the few most important characteristics, backgrounds, and demographics to a separate matrix document.
  2. Add two or three key questions to focus your list of board prospects. These questions should align with your stated intention. They could be yes/no questions like: “Does this board prospect have a strong current relationship with our mission?” or “Will this person actively engage in the fundraising needs of the organization?” or more generative questions like: “How will we create space for this person to be comfortable bringing new perspectives into a room and helping us shift some traditional ways of thinking?” or “What ways can we talk to this person about their connections to mission that bring engagement and excitement to their potential service?” The questions are yours to own. Just pick a few.
  3. Work with your board development committee, executive, and full board to then fill in the matrix with a clear list of people to contact about board service. Then begin.

Hopefully, this mini-matrix tool adds just enough clarity that your approach to the board prospect is both meaningful for you and them, and the likelihood that they will want to stand for election or be nominated will increase too.

Remember that the matrices are only a piece of the puzzle. The whole succession plan will have other key elements including a distribution of tasks throughout the recruitment and orientation process, the use of an accurate board job description, and maybe a short FAQ designed for the new board member that reviews expectations of financial giving, time commitments, and travel.

While the board matrix is not a cure-all for board recruitment, when done well, on purpose, and with clear intentions, it can bring great stability to an essential aspect of nonprofit life – a high-performing board.

Let’s be intentional, together