Whatever the non-profit industry—education, social service, religious entities, health care, culture or beyond—the strength of an organization’s governing board is foundational to the strength of the organization. Board decisions have lasting impact on the organization’s ability—or inability—to adapt to future trends and remain flexible in delivering on its mission.
Yet, too often, board relationships are frustrating for executives and disappointing for members. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are five steps to improving your board engagement:
- Understand why members agreed to serve.
We typically recruit board members for the skills and networks they may bring to our organizations. Focused on ourselves, we miss establishing a good foundation with prospective board members.
Board members agree to serve on boards for a variety of reasons. Not all reasons are directly related to your organization. Rather, they may agree to serve because they believe in the broader cause which your organization aims to influence. They may serve to build their own professional network—enticed by the opportunity to serve alongside other notable board members, or to gain experience as a board member. They may be serving on the board as a representative from an affiliated organization.
Regardless of their reason for serving, it’s vital to understand what they hope to gain from their service and position board time and effort accordingly. For instance: allow for collaborative time within meetings, couch the organization’s mission within the broader cause, or in partnership with affiliated organizations. Help board members recognize their goals as part of their board service.
- Set expectations early.
A board member’s failure to attend meetings, make a financial contribution or understand the mission and core values of the organization he or she serves is a direct reflection on the organization’s poor board recruiting.
Potential board members should know well the expectations of board service—from time required both in and outside of official meetings to financial participation and the opportunities and challenges facing the organization. If there are specific networks or skills the prospective member has which would be particularly helpful, tell him or her that you believe these areas will be important to helping the organization reach new goals.
Board members are often asked to do things for which they are ill-equipped: from sharing the story of the organization to making decisions which have significant impact on the future of the organization. Help these volunteers help your organization!
A few ideas include:
- Provide them with success stories from your organization which they can share with others.
- Present all relevant information regarding internal and external trends to best position their ability to govern and guide organizational decisions—even if (and especially if) they are unflattering or lend to new challenges.
- Offer—and require—educational opportunities which would help them to better serve your organization. Courses on media relations, fundraising and industry-related trends help to inform your board members, and equip them to be better—and more satisfied—partners in their service.
- Provide meaningful tasks.
Board members often say the most frustrating board service is “rubber stamp” meetings which fail to utilize knowledge and skills from the collective board. Members leave these meetings deflated, devalued and discouraged.
Comparatively, working together to solve problems, to cast vision, to respond to the changing environment, are valuable and fulfilling responsibilities. When equipped and empowered, board members increase their engagement with the organization, inspired to reach new heights.
Board self-evaluations are a helpful tool to maintaining a healthy board culture by providing feedback to the organization and affording opportunity for board members unable to honor the pre-determined expectations to improve their commitment or respectfully exit from board service. Yearly evaluations remind board members of their agreed expectations and hold members to the same standards.
If you’d like a sample board self-evaluation form, contact me at: Jennie Wolf Smith, GSB Consultant.
Click here to view my GSB website.
Further reading on Board Development
A great book to understand the mindset of your board members, check out: The Truth About What Nonprofit Boards Want: