Recruiting a Nonprofit Digital Board Director: Limitations & Alternatives

Recruiting a Nonprofit Digital Board Director: Limitations & Alternatives

By Eugene Fram

Both FP and NFP organizations are feverishly looking to add persons with digital experiences to their boards in order to be able to understand policy and strategic issues related to their organizations. Betsy Atkins, a veteran director with extensive FP and NFP experiences, makes the following observations about what is becoming a “digital director recruitment chase.”

• “There can be no doubt that every (commercial) corporation or (nonprofit board) needs the insights of a digital director to keep the company (or NFP) vital.
• First, ask how can you really use such insight? Is your board ready to listen? And is a candidate’s tech savvy matched by (his or her) business (or nonprofit) savvy?
• It is probably impossible to find a director with experiences in all the digital areas: e-commerce, mobile technology, security, social media and smart use of big data. There is some truth to the view that a digital director’s value is (often limited to the value of his or her specific technical insights, not broader business or industry insights.)
• Seek out, (when possible, business focused) directors who have led, built and transformed companies in e-commerce, mobile, social, ad tech and other (digital) spaces.”

Atkins’ observations show the intensity of the recruitment challenges for FP organizations. But if medium or larger nonprofits choose to pursue this initiative, can they compete with FP organizations in the same recruitment market for digital director level expertise? *

Another FP governance expert has suggested some alternative avenues for organizations seeking digital level directors for FP boards. With some “poetic license,” I want to suggest how these alternatives can be adapted to resolve the digital director problems, which seem to challenge NFPs.

Use external experts – Nonprofit boards need to better understand their responsibilities in making digital related policy and strategy decisions. No doubt engaging external experts is rather costly for a nonprofit. However, if a group of nonprofits employ the experts through a consortium arrangement, costs can be shared, and the information exchanged will have economic value.
For example, would it be possible to have a consortium of noncompeting charity boards in a geographic region share expert advice?
Have board orientations by the Internal IT staff – This would be the most cost effective and expedient approach. However, does the arrangement place the organization’s digital staff in a conflict of interest position?
Add a director with expertise in a digital area that currently relates well to the nonprofit’s mission. – For example, although, a potential director may have specific media experience (e.g. social media), but little or no business/nonprofit experience, will s/he be able to participate meaningfully in the broad range of issues that come before the board?
Have boards overview/supervise the assessment of digital outcomes. – This is to try to determine whether the investments in people, software and hardware are appropriate fits for the organization’s mission vision and values.

*Betsy Atkins (2013) “Three Myths About Digital Directors,” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 15th.

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