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Successful Tips for Recruiting Board and Commission Members


July 29, 2013 by Tracy Burrows
Category: Boards and Commissions

Successful Tips for Recruiting Board and Commission Members

When a vacancy occurs on a citizen board or commission, it’s a real opportunity to seek out new voices to contribute to the dialogue on community issues. You may seek to round out the membership to make sure it’s representative of the community or to recruit for someone with specialized knowledge relevant to the task. But filling vacancies on policy boards can sometimes be challenging. It’s relatively easy to recruit volunteers for short-term tasks that have an immediate impact, like installing playground equipment at a park. It’s harder to attract volunteers for a long-term commitment to discuss and shape policy issues.

So, what’s the secret to success? Here are some tried and true tips from experienced recruiters for board and commission members.

Define the Mission

The key to attracting volunteers is being able to clearly articulate the following:

  • The purpose of the board or commission;
  • The types of issues the group weighs in on, and;
  • The level of commitment that is involved.

Jill Boltz, City Clerk for the city of Poulsbo, credits their success in recruiting and maintaining volunteers to a community commitment to “paying it forward.” Jill notes, “Each of our boards has a really clear mission and purpose.” People feel motivated by knowing they are part of something that is important to the community and in knowing that their expertise and resources will be used effectively.

Outreach—The Power of the Personal Ask

Recruiting starts with getting the word out. Popular ways to publicize recruitment efforts are:

  • Posting vacancy announcements on the website and the public cable channel;
  • Sending word out through city- or county-sponsored listservs;
  • Using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to get the word out;
  • Placing an advertisement in the local newspaper, particularly if there are numerous vacancies to fill.

But, if you’re only relying on your community’s various media channels to recruit volunteers, then you are neglecting perhaps the most effective way to find new board and commission members. Enlist current board members, staff, and elected officials to spread the word about new openings.

And nothing beats the power of a personal ask. Mayor Glenn Johnson of Pullman sees board recruitment as a key part of his portfolio: “We solicit applications on our website.  But I go out and recruit members for all our boards. I ask the councilmembers and department directors for suggestions. We are looking for diversity and people who have an open mind on the issues.”

When you’re actively recruiting for volunteers, be direct and explain why you think the candidate would be an asset to the board. After you’ve made your pitch, close the deal.  Dropping a hint like, “Have you thought about submitting an application?”  is not as effective as directly asking, “Will you submit an application?”

Where to Find Potential Board and Commission Members

Some boards specify that members have a particular level of subject matter expertise, others require few qualifications. Beyond technical expertise, most communities are looking for certain qualities. Jill Bolz, Poulsbo’s City Clerk, says, “We’re looking for team players. People who work well with others.”

In Tukwila, the city is making a conscious effort to engage the underrepresented  populations within the city. The city council sponsors a “Council Chat” one Saturday a month, where anyone can come to discuss city issues. “We realized we were holding the chats in a location that wasn’t accessible to our immigrant and refugee community, so the council is taking the chats on the road, out to the people,” says Joyce Trantina in the Mayor’s Office. Through outreach like this, the city hopes to engage more diverse participation on boards and commissions. Age diversity is also important. Tukwila is also working with the school district to encourage student participation on boards where it is appropriate.

Mayor Glenn Johnson of Pullman says, “I go to the service clubs, schools, the university, and the chamber of commerce to try to find someone who fits the bill. Or, someone may have come in and given testimony before the city council and shown that they are articulate and have an open mind.” Applicants who are motivated by a single issue may not bring the best dynamic to a board or commission. “After a controversial zoning decision, we’ll have a lot of applications come in for the planning commission. But they are people who are motivated by one issue. We’re looking for broader representation by people who are willing to consider the different sides of an issue,” says Johnson.

Retaining Board and Commission Members

One of the keys to successful recruiting for boards and commissions is retaining current members and having them help recruit new members as needed. Showing appreciation, even in the simplest ways, is critical to retaining volunteers. As Mayor Johnson says, “The key is once you get the volunteers on board, you’ve got to treat them right. Do not take them for granted.” Every Thanksgiving, Mayor Johnson sends personal, hand-written notes to each of the city’s 80 volunteer board members, thanking them and letting them know how important they are. The city of Tukwila holds an ice cream social every summer for their volunteers. Some communities host an annual dinner to thank board and commission members.

There has never been a volunteer who has been thanked too often! Look for creative and fun ways to recognize board and commission members, and you’ll find that it helps your recruitment of new volunteers as well.

Examples of Notices of Board Vacancies


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About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.

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