Taking a cue from the online dating site Match.com, a coalition of St. Louis groups formed to advise area nonprofit organizations created a Web portal to match local agencies with potential board members.

"Board development is a chronic challenge for nonprofits both large and small -- size does not matter," said Barbara Levin, coordinator of the Alliance for Building Capacity program at Washington University in St. Louis.

Levin's office became involved with the new Web project to address two problems: one, that small and mid-size agencies have few resources for recruiting board members, and two, that minorities and young people are traditionally underrepresented on nonprofit boards.

How it Works
Just getting off the ground, the BoardLinkStL Web portal is designed to allow both nonprofits and potential board members to create online profiles about their interests, specialties and location within the St. Louis region.

The questionnaires guiding the creation of profiles also ask organizations how they're looking to diversify their boards. The matching function compares aspects of the individual and nonprofit profiles and then provides a ranked list to organizations and individuals based on the percentage of matches between the profiles.

Both groups and individuals can send personal messages, and the other party can click on "interested in" or "not interested in" the other party. If the interest is there, they can arrange for an offline discussion or interview.

"It is kind of like dating," Levin said. "Some nonprofits would be thrilled just that someone is interested in them."

For organizations, there's an annual registration fee on a sliding scale of $100 to $300 depending on their size. The fee covers the readiness workshops, materials, matching services and access to the Web portal for one year. For individuals, the annual registration fee is $50.

Two sponsor companies are offering scholarships for nonprofits to help pay the fees.

Before the nonprofits and individuals actually meet, the program requires them to do two and a half hours of training.

"We realized it wouldn't work without readiness training," Levin stressed. "From the start, we said it's not how many matches we make, but how many marriages."

Individuals have to think about their roles and responsibilities as a board member and what they'll bring to an organization, and nonprofits must have an organizational structure to let new board members succeed, such as clearly written manuals for board members and access to financial information, said Levin.

Putting it Online
When asked who conceived the idea for the portal, Levin said it was a "simultaneous combustion" in June 2004, involving several people, including John McClusky, director of the Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Besides the two universities, alliance members include United Way of Greater St. Louis, the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, the Nonprofit Services Consortium, FOCUS St. Louis, the Family Support Council, and St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts.

Someone in the group mentioned seeing Web portals that offered nationwide matching of volunteers and nonprofits, and the group started talking about how that use of technology could be applied to their situation. They also learned about a group in Ann Arbor, Mich., called Nonprofit Enterprise at Work that offers an online board-matching feature.

"We wanted to create something unique to St. Louis and reflective of our community," Levin said.

The group started with seed funding of $10,000 that the MetLife Foundation gave the United Way of Greater St. Louis to help promote board diversity. After a competitive bidding process, they hired a young, minority-owned Web design firm based in St. Louis called Bravo:Smart to design the site.

"They appealed to us because they were small, hungry and interested in nonprofits," Levin said.

They looked to Match.com and other online dating sites for inspiration. The alliance members saw the prototype design for the first time in January 2005, and spent the next few months writing the content and tweaking the language of the questionnaires.

The site design was completed in spring 2005, and a pilot project that summer attracted 20 nonprofits and 60 individuals, who gave feedback on the look and feel of the site as well as the follow-up training.

The Web portal went live in mid-October 2005, and there are now 51 nonprofits and 118 potential board members registered. Some groups are still working on their profiles, and the matching has just begun. The nonprofit organizations range from the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma.

Levin and her colleagues are waiting to see if there will be technical glitches or compatibility issues. Individuals haven't reported any problems registering, but some staff at the nonprofits are not as tech-savvy and have needed some guidance, she said.

"We will be offering assistance after matches are made, too," Levin said. "We want to hear what happens."

Levin noted that with 2,000 active nonprofits in the St. Louis area, the surface of the innovative recruitment tool's potential has barely been scratched, and with 1.8 million nonprofits across the United States, it could easily be replicated in other cities.