Boards, Prospect Research & Management

What strategies do you use to identify, track, and vet potential board candidates? Board members are your top donors, your most vocal cheerleaders, and are fiduciarily responsible for your organization. Your organization needs sound practices in place to ensure you have a pipeline of philanthropic, committed, and enthusiastic volunteers. This advisory offers tips for each phase of the board pipeline process:


Identification of candidates comes from a number of sources, but generally falls into one of the following categories:

  1. Referrals: Regardless of if your organization is large and complex or if you have a staff of 25, there are a lot of people could be keeping their eyes out for future board members. Do your current volunteers and non-development staff know who to contact if they encounter a viable board candidate? Do they know what characteristics to look for? Develop and implement an intentional strategy to push this out via email interactions and face-to-face meetings so the responsibility to identify future volunteer leaders doesn’t fall to development alone.
  2. Research: If you have a prospect research professional or team, meet with them to discuss the characteristics you’re looking for in board candidates. Research can focus on engaged volunteers and donors with philanthropic capacity at/above a certain level, who work within specific industries, or who demonstrate longevity of giving to your organization. If you have a good rapport with research, discuss board prospecting as an annual/ongoing process.
  3. Currently engaged volunteers/donors: Consider issuing an open call for interested applicants. Reach out to your alumni board, advisory board, and any other volunteer groups that are feeders to your governing board. Invite interested candidates to apply or nominate themselves. Clearly outline the expectations of the role, including financial commitments, so candidates can assess whether or not they meet the criteria to apply.


Tracking board candidates may sound like an unneeded step, but it’s important to ensure organizational continuity. It’s important to know if a previous president, VP, or another colleague has talked with engaged volunteers or donors about potential board service. Group candidates into the following categories and designate one area/team (traditionally either the president’s office or prospect development) to maintain these lists/codes in your database:

  • Immediate: Candidates have been vetted by senior leadership, have given at least verbal confirmation of intent to join, and are in queue for confirmation. The candidate and/or prospect research creates a nomination profile.
  • On the horizon: Candidates have philanthropic capacity confirmed by prospect research, their interest in your organization is confirmed, but they have not been asked about board service (or have been asked but have indicated the timing is not yet right). They are on a 1-2 year trajectory to becoming board members.
  • Rising stars: Candidates are engaged with your organization and have positive career trajectory (or other markers of future philanthropic capacity) but haven’t yet demonstrated the specific requirements to join your board. They are on a 3-5 year trajectory to becoming board members.
  • Disqualified: Individuals who have previously been considered as board candidates but have been disqualified due to lack of interest/philanthropic capacity, or did not pass an internal or external vetting process. Track these individuals (along with the reason for disqualification) so you won’t continue to review them year after year, assuming their circumstances remain unchanged.


Just as you would with a job applicant, it’s important to conduct due diligence on board candidates to ensure they are the right fit. As candidates are being evaluated, conversations are initiated, and individuals are placed in one of the groups from the previous section, think through what level of vetting you’ll want to conduct:

  • Reference checks: Invite candidates to provide references who can vouch for their qualifications. Previous board (or other volunteer) service is highly desired. Some organizations require a current or former trustee to nominate candidates.
  • Research profiles: Ideally, your prospect research professional/team has conducted research on all four groups outlined above this information is stored within your database or your document management system. Research conducted for due diligence often takes longer than standard research profiles, so be sure to clarify what you need the research for when you make the request.
  • Outsource: If internal research uncovers anything concerning, consider asking an external party to conduct research, similar to conducting a background check for employees. This is especially important if a prospective board member is involved or is suspected of involvement in anything that is counter to your organization’s mission (example, oil company executives for an environmentally-focused nonprofit).

Following these tips will streamline your organization’s board prospecting processes and help ensure you have a pipeline that continues to provide board candidates for years to come. If you need help brainstorming board prospecting processes at your organization, contact Bond Lammey.