Identifying and Recruiting Skilled Board Members

By Phil Kenkel, Vice Chair, Cooperatives CoP and Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair, Oklahoma State University,

In a recent national project academic, researchers, cooperative managers and members, USDA, agricultural foundations and other stakeholders collaborated to identify the critical issues facing agricultural cooperatives.  A two-stage Delphi survey was conducted, followed by expert panel sessions in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The material below summarizes some of the findings from the project

Identifying and recruiting quality directors with essential skills are a pressing issue for agricultural cooperatives. Almost 80 percent of the cooperative leaders surveyed rated it an extremely critical issue. Member involvement in a cooperative—another key issue—is also related to this issue. A member’s perception of his influence on the cooperative often relates to his access to board members or his interest in running for the board. The addition of outside, non-member directors has been a recent development in agricultural cooperatives, and according to the panel, is an important issue facing modern cooperatives.

Most cooperatives have struggled with identifying methods to recruit a pool of high-quality board candidates. Almost all out-going board members report that serving on the board was a worthwhile and fulfilling experience. Unfortunately, it is difficult to communicate that enthusiasm to potential board candidates. Today’s producers are managing complex farming operations and have demands for time for their family and often their spouse’s career.

There is no magic bullet to board member recruitment. A well thought out and formal recruitment process is a good place to start.  It’s not possible or politically feasible to compensate board members for what their time is worth. However, insulting low compensation can be one more disincentive. The time required to adequately fulfill the duties and responsibilities of a board member is likely the largest deterrent to candidacy. Efficient, well-run meetings and proper use of tools such as the board packet, consent agenda, meeting minutes, committees and advisors all help to make the best use of the time committed. Some cooperatives are experimenting with holding the board meeting at a different time during the day, such as first thing in the morning.

Agricultural cooperatives have historically elected board members at large or by geographical districts. Some cooperatives are experimenting with different systems such as targeting a board seat toward a young producer or a female candidate. Some rural electric cooperatives encourage on-line board nominations and have even implemented on-line voting systems. These systems could be a tool for agricultural cooperatives. Creating more avenues for member involvement such as short-term committees, focus groups or customer meetings can also be a vehicle to create tomorrow’s board candidate.

The democratic process of member control creates and encourages turnover in the cooperative board of directors. It also creates the on-going critical issue of identifying and recruiting skilled board members.