Improving board member engagement

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Column

I frequently hear concerns from board leaders and nonprofit executives about lack of board member engagement in their organizations. Details range from poor meeting attendance to failure to participate in committee work, events or fundraising.

While every board faces its specific engagement challenges, here are some general ideas to improve board member engagement in the upcoming year.

Provide all members with a job description – Just as we use job descriptions in our workplaces to clarify expectations, a written board member job description lays out what is expected from those who serve.

While some may assume that these responsibilities are self-evident, expectations can vary from organization to organization, depending upon the group’s size, type and activities. Being clear about what is expected of board members helps them follow through on their responsibilities.

Provide all members with the annual schedule of board/organizational events – Improve meeting and event attendance by providing schedules to members well in advance. It’s not enough to say “board meetings are at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month.” Providing the specific dates, times and locations of meetings and other organizational events for the upcoming year encourages board members to put these dates in their calendars and to plan their schedules accordingly.

Hold board member orientation – This is a time to provide new members with the information they need to be active board members. While it’s important to provide all pertinent organizational documents and information to new members, be sure they aren’t overwhelmed with details. Design a simple approach that overviews the basics of the organization and board responsibilities in a systematic and engaging way. Orientation helps members develop a better understanding of the organization and their role in its success.

Take time for a board retreat – Nonprofit governance is a group activity; it is important that the group works well together. A retreat not only provides time for the board to plan for the upcoming year, it also provides an opportunity for board members to work together and get to know one another better. Whether it’s full day or just a few hours, a retreat can help members build stronger connections to one another and the organization.

Show appreciation – We all tend to disengage from situations in which we do not feel needed, wanted or appreciated. This is just human nature. Unfortunately, it’s also human nature to get so engrossed in a project or activity that we forget to recognize and thank the people around us. It’s important that board leaders and nonprofit executives find genuine ways to recognize and thank board members for their time, energy and service. Things like a simple thank-you from the board president or an appreciative email to a board committee for a job well-done helps remind members that their participation is important and valued.

Most board members come into our organizations with a strong sense of commitment and passion. Over time, systems and culture can dampen this enthusiasm. As you build upon these ideas, develop approaches to help your organization strengthen your members’ commitment and build a board culture fosters engagement.

When faced with specific situations of flagging enthusiasm and engagement, consider the following:

  • Do board members know what is currently expected of them?
  • Do board members understand how this current activity/question is related to the purpose and goals of the organization?
  • Do board members feel connected to others in the organization?
  • Do board members feel appreciated for the time, energy and ideas they bring to the board table?

Finding ways to increase understanding, build connections and recognize the skills and expertise that members bring to the issue at hand can help your organization see more engagement from its board members in the upcoming year.