By Mary Beth Volmer, Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands (WI). Reprint from The Link, Summer 2021

FOPPI members construct an Aldo Leopold bench. Plum and Pilot Islands are part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge (WI). Photo by Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands.

In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins asks you to envision your organization—in our case, Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands (FOPPI)—as a bus. The size doesn’t truly matter. In this analogy, consider the Friends president as the bus driver with the seats filled by the board members. He emphasizes the need to fill the seats with the right people, don’t just fill them with anyone. Will these folks be ready to help push when the bus stalls? Will they provide ideas and inspiration when the bus isn’t running smoothly?

As president of FOPPI, I am overly proud to say that today my bus is filled with the right people who will push the bus through quicksand if they had to. That’s today … tomorrow may be different; folks get sick, they move, they lose their passion. The bus driver (aka me) needs to keep the bus moving — there’s wildlife that needs protecting, habitat that needs restoring, visitors that need to learn about our refuge.

Can I drive an empty bus? Yes, but that would be no fun. I need the camaraderie of others who share my same passion, who care about the refuge as much as I and want to see the light in a child’s eye when they tag their first butterfly or the smile on a woman’s face when she connects her hammer with a nail in our Women in Preservation program. The challenge is finding them, engaging them, and keeping them. We have board term limits, and many of our members renew their post for another three years; but they’re getting tired, and this poses a challenge. If any one of them left, I don’t have the bandwidth to take on what they are doing. We’ve been so busy doing what has needed to be done that we have missed the need to build up a reserve. We’ve been topping off the oil rather than changing it.

So we asked ourselves why, besides the opportunity to vote on key initiatives for our refuge, would someone want to join our board? Through the work that we did with the Friends Partnership Mentoring Program we identified what we felt we are doing right (bylaws, job descriptions, strong financials, etc.), brainstormed ideas, came up with still more questions, and fixed our sights on doing things differently. Following the 5-W strategy, here is a sample of what we came up with:

  • Who is a potential board member?
    • Folks who share our passion, those who volunteer regularly with us, and those who are interested in serving on a nonprofit board of directors.
  • What do we need to do to get a volunteer interested in becoming a board member?
    • Offer perks not available to volunteers, such as behind-the-scenes access and tours.
    • Introduce them to our ‘Volunteer Leader’ program—a role that is similar to a board member, less voting rights. Volunteer leaders are mentored by board members and encouraged to advance to a spot on the board.
  • When do we shamelessly begin our recruiting?
    • Now.
  • Where do we find these folks?
    • The LinkedIn social media platform partners with VolunteerMatch to match folks who are interested in serving on a nonprofit board. We turned the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands into a business and asked our board and volunteer leaders to connect to it.
  • Why serve on our board of directors?
    • The rare opportunity to work with some of the most passionate folk you are ever to meet who share your interest in conservation, and in our case — historic preservation. 

I hope that these ideas get you thinking. Consider board sustainability akin to the preventive maintenance that you would perform on your bus. Don’t wait for the oil light to come on!

2022 Updates on Board Recruitment & Structure:

  • FOPPI didn’t receive any responses from our LinkedIn recruiting.
  • FOPPI DID fill two open positions using Facebook Jobs.
  • They also realized that they didn’t need as many seats on the bus. The reality is that folks are busy and attending meetings can be a challenge. So, they created ‘Volunteer Leader’ roles. These folks provide valuable input, lead discussions, but don’t vote.
  • The board members that have fiscal responsibility to FOPPI members and donors include: Treasurer, Historic Preservation, Fundraising, Governance, Merchandising.