By Kara Harrison, consultant, Hedges
We’ve all experienced it, and we know exactly what it feels like. Having a disengaged board is disheartening and can be a strain on already limited resources. It takes precious time away from the reason why the organization exists.
Disengagement is hard to define, and it’s even harder to fix. It takes time and intentionality. Before we dig in to why your board may not be engaged, let’s first paint a picture of what a disengaged board might look like:
- Board meetings are an update session where the board is being talked at and passively listening to reports.
- Executive directors feel like they are managing up to the board.
- Board meetings feel like a scene out of “Groundhog Day”, the same challenges being shared by staff and the same questions being asked by the board.
- The same two or three board members are doing everything, and they are exhausted. It’s likely you are ignoring term limits just to keep these board members, because you can’t imagine what would happen without them.
- Board members only see each other in the board room. There are no social events for board and staff to get to know each other personally and build respect and connection.
Ignite your board
At Hedges, we hear about these and other challenging board scenarios from board and staff leadership on a weekly basis. Through our experience working with nonprofit boards, we have identified four specific reasons board members may not be engaged and clear actions you can take to ignite your board to provide what your organization needs.
- Your board does not know what they should be doing. They don’t understand their roles and responsibilities as either a board of directors or as independent board members. BoardSource (Ingram, 2015) published a comprehensive list of 10 basic responsibilities nonprofit boards should follow:
- Determine the mission and purposes, and advocate for them.
- Select the chief executive.
- Support and evaluate the chief executive.
- Ensure effective planning.
- Monitor and strengthen programs and services.
- Ensure adequate financial resources.
- Protect assets and provide financial oversight.
- Build and sustain a competent board.
- Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
- Enhance the organization’s public standing.
Additionally, board members are required to follow three legal duties also described by BoardSource; duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience. Lastly, there should be several set expectations that are determined by the needs of the organization, such as:
- Actively participating in board meetings and on committees, according to participation and attendance policies;
- Understanding the organization’s mission and programming through program immersion opportunities like volunteering or shadowing;
- Attending and actively promoting all organizational events; and
- Contributing to the organization’s fund-development efforts through personal giving and fundraising.
While staff leadership might have a clear understanding of these roles, board members don’t automatically come to the board room knowing these things – roles need to be taught early and reiterated often. Board roles, responsibilities and expectations should be shared and echoed in the following ways, much like when an employee starts a new job:
- In the board member application: Ensure potential board members know the full expectations and requirements, before joining the board.
- In the board member job description: This tool not only sets expectations, but it can also be used as an accountability tool for board members
- At board orientation: Just like an orientation for a new job, board orientation should include discussion about roles and responsibilities and include comprehensive training about the organization.
- Through occasional board assessments: Organizations should consider conducting a board assessment every 2 to 3 years to measure current understandings and practices against set goals and best practices. Assessing the board can occur through electronic surveys or one-on-one interviews and may be conducted by a third party.
2. Board members don’t know why they are on the board.
We’re talking about two different whys here:
- The why that fuels passion: This refers to the reason why each board member chooses your organization to invest his or her time. What is it about your organization’s mission, programs, and impact that inspires him or her to volunteer time and talents?
- The why that fuels productivity: This refers to why the organization wants a specific individual to join the board. What specific skills or experiences of the individual will the organization be hoping to tap into that will best support and enhance the organization?
Determining these whys will help ensure your board is made up of the right people who are willing and excited to commit to your organization. Understanding why 1) someone wants to join the board and 2) why you want that person on the board requires intentionality and can be identified in different ways:
- Utilize a board matrix: Use this tool to capture a snapshot of current board skills, demographics, experiences, etc. that are determined as a priority for the organization. Doing this will allow you to determine what gaps exist on the board and should inform how you are recruiting board members.
- Interview potential board members: Spend time getting to know potential board members by conducting a meet-and-greet with the executive director and board chair. Ask the potential board member why he or she is interested in joining the board and share exactly why the organization needs him or her.
- Ask intentional questions in the board application: Asking questions like: “Why do you want to serve on this board?” and “What interests you most about our mission?” is an important step to determine if the relationship will be best for the organization.
- Schedule check-ins with each board member: Have one-on-one meetings with board members annually to ensure all board members have a positive experience and feel utilized and valued. This conversation can be led by the executive director, a board member or a third party.
- Keep board members connected to the mission: Every single board meeting should include a mission moment that reminds board members why they are investing in the organization. At a minimum, mission moments should include sharing program impact data or stories, hearing from program staff, or even better, hearing from someone immediately affected by the organization’s work.
3. Your board members don’t feel like they have what they need to be a successful board member. We often assume that because board members are successful professionals, they will automatically be successful board members. What we need to remember is that board members need to be taught how to be good board members by explaining the roles and responsibilities and giving them the resources they need to be successful. The resources board members need parallel the types of resources employees need to do their jobs:
Education: Board members can benefit from being educated on specific topics that would support their role as a board member. As an example, every board member should fundraise for the organization, but not every board member knows how to fundraise. For fundraising education, take the time to teach board members how to talk about the organization within their network, identify potential donors and steward current donors.
Tools: Do members of the board have what they need to get their jobs done? Do they have talking points, like impact data and stories? Do they have brochures, hand-outs, or the executive director’s business card? Do they have easy access to policies and procedures that they are required to follow? Ask your board what resources they need during the annual check-ins or board assessments.
Support: It’s important to set-up a strong support network for board members that will foster strong inter-connection and accountability. Some organizations have implemented a “board-buddy” system, pairing up new board members with seasoned members for information sharing and connection.
4. Your board is bored. Board membership is a serious responsibility, but it should be a fun experience. If board members are not having fun in their volunteer position, why should they continue to enthusiastically invest? If your board seems a little down, consider these three strategies to boost the board.
Encourage socializing: Board members should get together outside of the boardroom at least once a year. We’re talking about a strict “no business” policy at these gatherings. Board members need opportunities to get to know each other on a personal level to build respect and comradery that will hopefully result in robust discussions in the boardroom. Don’t assume relationships will automatically build at the organization’s annual fundraising event. Be intentional in planning social gatherings and consider opportunities that will also include your board’s family members.
Shower them with gratitude: We get so caught up in the roles and responsibilities of board membership, we can forget to take a step back and remember board membership is a volunteer position, and might be one of the biggest investments anyone is making to your organization. Those volunteer hours are critical and should be appreciated like any donor. Treat your board members like major donors and show them they are appreciated by sending handwritten thank you notes, celebrating their successes and publicly praising their hard work.
Experience the impact: Keep the board motivated by giving them plenty of opportunities to see the impact of their work directly. Opportunities look different for each organization, but could include; having special volunteer times for board members, shadowing program staff and connecting with clients. Build as many personal connections between the organization’s impact and the board as possible to boost the board’s motivation and inspiration.
An engaged board is the foundation of the organization, giving strength and supporting the overall health of the organization. When the board is effective, the programs can efficiently change the lives of those they serve. When the board is supportive, the organization has a better chance of being financially healthy. When the board partners with the executive director, the organization’s staff and volunteers feel valued and fully supported. When the board is active, more people know about the organization’s impact. Every nonprofit deserves an engaged board that will propel the organization’s mission forward.
Kara Harrison has a passion for activating conversations, decisions, and actions that result in great governance. She believes that having an engaged board can be the most important strategy to an organization’s success. Harrison has been a consultant with Hedges since 2017. As a former executive director, she approaches board services and strategic planning with both real experience and best practices.