You’ve done the logic models. You’ve surveyed the landscape. You have your compelling mission statement, a punchy organization name, and a great set of program ideas. You’re almost ready to found your nonprofit and start changing the world.

Except one little thing: you can’t go it alone. And that’s not just an inspiring cliché. Filing your 501(c)(3) means submitting the names and contact information of your founding board of directors.

Your board’s job is less than easy. Effective governance requires intentionality, commitment and direction from each and every member — on top of their existing personal and professional responsibilities. Set your new leadership up for success by keeping these common mistakes as you recruit:

  1. Avoid family members
    The most common mistake new founders make is recruiting family members onto their founding board. Identical last names raise major red flags for the IRS when it comes time to review your tax-exemption application. If your board consists entirely of family members, the IRS will assume there is a conflict of interest, primarily with the organization’s finances. Note that this is not a blanket rule: you can include one or two family members without a problem, just be sure that they don’t make up the majority of your list.
  2. Recruit Diverse Skillsets 
    It’s no surprise that new founders will turn to family and friends for their first round of board recruitment. While your inner circle probably does contain qualified candidates — particularly if they feel as passionately about your chosen issue as you do — a good friend doesn’t necessarily make for a good board member. You should be aiming to build a team of people with expertise on a variety of different topics. This might look like recruiting an accountant to serve as your treasurer, an attorney to advise on your legal obligations, or a seasoned field veteran with the connections to get your cause out there.
  3. Choose a Small, Odd Number
    Your board’s job is to make decisions for your organization, and that means voting. Prevent the possibility of deadlocks by recruiting an odd number of members. By definition, a five-person team cannot have a three-to-three deadlock. Similarly, avoid accepting too many members at the start. Your organization is new: three to five qualified and committed members is plenty.
  4. Communicate the Commitment
    Your board members are (generally) unpaid volunteers — but that doesn’t change your organizational needs. Finding qualified members with the right passion for your cause is tough, and first-time founders will frequently undersell the commitment involved in order to get a yes. But if you frame the position as being “not much work,” that’s what you’re likely to get — with frustration on all sides as well.

Your board of directors isn’t just your governing body: they’re your nonprofit’s biggest allies, core volunteers, and very first members. Choose with care, respect their time, and prepare your organization for success.

Wondering how exactly to go about recruiting and retaining qualified board members? Watch out for the next part in Resilia’s board management series — building your team.