How the Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas Uses a Committee to Vet, Select, and Onboard Board Members
Given the transient nature of a legal aid organization’s board of directors, and that at any moment there may be multiple skill or personnel holes to fill, strengthening the board as much as possible and setting it up for success is very important.
The Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) is one such organization that deals with the usual frequent changes to its board, but it takes active steps to identify any board-related weaknesses or issues and make the duties and responsibilities of the board as streamlined as possible.
While LANWT has long had a committee for the selection, nomination, training, care, and development of its board of directors, that committee took a step forward and became more robust in 2016. (The committee consisted of four to five of the 27 total board members.) One of the areas it decided to focus on in particular was the recruitment of new board members.
To start off the recruitment efforts, the committee pulled the poverty statistics of LANWT’s service area of 114 counties and 15 offices, looking at the poverty level for each of the counties. The committee then examined the composition of the current board and did a survey, looking at the skills and duties of those on the board, its diversity, and underrepresented client groups, and identified the desired skills of the oncoming board members. LANWT ensured targeted recruitment efforts in its more rural service areas.
Next, LANWT sent out a message that it was looking for new board members. This involved having the managers of local offices, who are in tune with local agencies and bar associations, ask people to send the names and bios of prospective board members. The committee also reached out to people rolling off the board to see if they knew anyone interested in serving on it, a process from which they received several nominations.
After collecting and vetting the nominations, LANWT’s executive director interviewed the candidates. (Note that this isn’t the usual protocol; it’s usually done by the board committee chair, who was busy at the time.)
The interviews consisted of questions concerning:
- What they knew about legal aid
- Were they active in the community
- Were they able to commit their time and resources to the organization
- Were they active in the surrounding counties or the service area of a particular branch office
- Did they know anything about the requirements of LSC funding
- Did they have past board experience
- Did they have any potential conflicts
- Were they financially eligible (for client-eligible board members)
In addition to the interviews, as part of its thorough vetting process, LANWT also got letters of recommendation from whoever nominated the prospective board members. If appropriate, these references were contacted to obtain additional relevant information about the board candidates.
All of this information then went to the board committee for consideration, nomination, and selection. With several things in mind, including the diversity and integrity of the board, LANWT, in its 2017 cycle, went after two types of board members: one who represented the disabled community and one who represented the LGBT community—a group typically not well represented on LANWT’s board.
After the board committee reviewed the list of prospective members, their recommendations—which included, for each individual, their biography, background, and why they would be a good fit for the board—went to the executive committee and then to the full board for a vote.
At the end of this process, LANWT, just like in previous years, found that its overall strategy played out—that is, to get someone who is the “complete package” and fits what the board needs.
It’s also important to note that there’s no timeframe for LANWT’s board vetting, selection, and onboarding process—people roll off the board all the time so recruitment meetings happen on an as-needed basis. This means that while recruitment happens around the calendar, so too does onboarding, which is organized by the board committee.
The new board member orientation process at LANWT involves a formal three-hour orientation before the first full board meeting, which gets new members ready for the meeting and better prepared to understand unique things about legal aid. It also includes important information about pro bono involvement, an introduction to the senior management team, an overview of funding, a chance to get to know one another, and an introduction to both LANWT’s other offices and unique terms used in the discussion of legal aid business, such as PAI.