Q&A: Boosting Board Engagement

Q: Our Board members are not engaged. They seem to think Board meetings are more of a social time than a productive time. Committee meetings are not attended.

– Daniel, Nonprofit Director

A: There are so many reasons for lack of board engagement. To answer this question specific to your board it would be important to understand the dynamics going on inside and outside the boardroom. However, having said that, understanding the basics is a good place to start.

Do you have a board member matrix so you’re asking the right people on the board? Do you have an engaged Chair and committee chairs on the board? Do you have a strategic plan?

With Kim Tucker’s permission I want to share with you an excerpt from an article she wrote for Comstock’s Magazine in June called “Let’s Get Functional: 3 tips for better board performance” because she was right on:

First, recognize that highly functioning boards share these attributes:

* An engaged board chair – someone not over-committed, who is available, responsive and supportive of the executive director

* A culture of accountability among board members

* Board term limits that are followed and celebrated

* Objectives that are accomplished between board meetings

* Structured meetings with the advance distribution of consent calendar and meeting materials

Tucker’s top three tips are to recruit strategically, train your new folks well and commit to individualized attention:

Recruit strategically. Give up pursuing for your board the nine players in your area who run big corporations, and focus instead on a diverse group that aligns with your mission. Recruit new board members who are passionate about the organization and have a firm grasp on whom or what it serves and how it goes about achieving its mission.

Train your new folks well. Once you identify a new board member and they willingly accept, remember that it’s not the qualified who are called, its the called who get qualified. Provide great mission-centric exposure and information, and make sure the board has an orientation protocol that offers periodic training on a variety of subjects. The protocol will get your new members up and running and will establish a pipeline for new board members.

Training for new board members should include an introduction to a strong committee structure where newbies can visualize a good fit for their skills. Start by combining all internal, external and governance-related functions into three committees, with every member assigned to just one committee. Getting work done at the committee level and between meetings allows time for big-picture discussions at the board meetings.

Whether a board member is new or has been around a while, institute an individual board development plan for each person. Toss out the old job description that gently suggests 75 percent attendance at meetings, and instead convey higher expectations. Create a fill-in-the-blank template that generates ideas of how each individual can make a difference for the organization. You’ll be amazed how ho-hum can morph to wow when board members are empowered with information and direction.

Commit to individualized attention. Part of the job of board chair is to conduct meaningful, strategic planning and board evaluations annually. Meet one-on-one with each member of your board at least once a year. The outcomes will be valuable when considering whom to groom as a potential leader.

If you are an executive director, get to know these board members. Conduct your own one-on-one interviews, especially with new board members, and do it well within the first 90 days of their term. It will be very helpful to you to know how each board member can support the mission, i.e. support you. A great board will have your back if relationships are formed early, expectations are clear and courtesy and respect are mutual.

Read her full article on the Comstock’s website for more details on how to accomplish these goals.

We have found that most board members are successful professionals and have passion for the nonprofit sector however, many forget their leadership talent when crossing the boardroom door. It is because most board members do not have training on how a nonprofit should function.

If we can assist in management/leadership training, please contact us.

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By Kerry Sokol