Strategy Versus Seat Warmer: Filling a Nonprofit Board Member Position

When a vacant board member position for a nonprofit organisation is filled as a result of a current board member asking a colleague or friend, it can imply that the board did not adequately reflect on the needs of the organisation in order to move forward in a financial and philanthropic direction. It is better to have an empty seat – while the board pursues the best candidate – than to have a ‘seat warmer’.


Some board member positions are reserved for people with certain professions – for example, the accountant or the attorney – or particular skills – for example, those with financial investment acumen, marketing skills, and so on. Even the bylaws of the board may outline the type of individual for the position. Regardless, boards should refrain from selecting a member at random – rather, the selection should be strategic.

It is best to secure an established partner of a respected company; these individuals come with advantages – they have a better understanding of business development, have more decision-making authority with the company, have a wider and more influential network, and are in a better position to advocate for resources to advance the mission of the nonprofit organisation.


If the board was unsuccessful in securing the established partner and has exhausted all further options – that is, the board has tried to secure established partners of other well-respected companies – the board should secure the partner’s recommendation.

I recall – when recruiting a member for the board of a research organisation – we invited the CEO of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies to come to speak and tour the facility. Did the board ask for his recommendations? Yes and no.


The research conducted by the board revealed that the CEO was currently sitting on for-profit boards and several non-profit boards, and so, the chances of him accepting the position were slim to none; nevertheless, the board asked if he would take the position while understanding that his current commitments were likely to prevent him from accepting. Given the synergies between the research organisation and the large company, of which he was CEO, it was very beneficial to move the relationship to a higher level.


The ask went like this: “We appreciate the current demands on your time, and we thank you so much for visiting us today. We would be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to share that we are in the process of enhancing our board of trustees…” This was followed by a discussion about his capacity – or, lack thereof – to serve on another board at this time, which the board had expected and prepared for.
Yet, the ask didn’t stop there: “We appreciate the current demands on your time, and we thank you so much for your consideration of the position. We believe strengthening the relationship between our organisation and your company would be of great benefit; if you’re willing, would you nominate a member of your senior management team that could serve as a member of our board?” The CEO replied that he would consider possible nominations, for which the board expressed sincere gratitude.


Approximately ten days after the CEO’s visit, the board received a phone call from one of the Vice Presidents of the pharmaceutical company (a member of the senior management team and a direct report to the CEO) in follow-up to the conversation he had with the CEO about joining the board and getting a tour of the research facility. The Vice President did indeed accept the offer to serve on the board and this further solidified the relationship between the two parties and improved access to the CEO.


The efforts to secure a top manager of the pharmaceutical company was strategic, as should be all efforts to build a powerhouse board. ‘Seat warmers’ will not take your board to the next level and there should always be consideration for building the board with members who have wealth and influence.

As a starting point, plot the current board members (notwithstanding the required members with certain professions, as mentioned above) on a Wealth & Influence Matrix – you will see that those members who fall into the lower left quadrant are not going to enhance the board if the aim is to increase philanthropic revenue:


If a nonprofit organisation relies on the board to carry out volunteer activities – e.g. events and services – some of these strategies for filling a board position may not apply, in which case, volunteering might be enough, but, it is important to be able to communicate to potential donors that the board has a high giving rate (ideally, of 100%). If those closest to the organisation (board members) don’t believe in donating, why should anyone who is outside of the organisation (general public) make a donation? It is in the best interest of the nonprofit organisation to have board members, including volunteers, that attend board meetings and events (give their time) and donate to support the cause (give their money).


In summary, serving as a member of a nonprofit board requires having a certain profession or set of skills and the capacity and intent to donate. When a new member is to be recruited, expectations will be well-established by the existing board members and it won’t be as much of a challenge for the board, as candidates will strive to sit alongside members of high influence and wealth – those ‘seat warmers’ won’t compare!

Boards of nonprofit organisations should have board member position descriptions that delineate the expectations and required commitments of potential members; this includes donating at a level that is possible and meaningful for each member. This often eliminates the ‘seat warmers’ and attracts members who will advance the mission of your organisation.