Nonprofit work may be the one arena where you’re expected to inspire your bosses as well as provide them with ways to serve and hold them accountable. It’s a tricky business. If your board is operating on autopilot or hardly operating at all, try these methods for building meaningful nonprofit board engagement.
Telling your board to be engaged may be like telling a child to eat a reasonable amount of candy. In other words, it’s very subjective. The directors serving your organization may feel they are engaged simply by attending meetings or making contributions. If you want or need more from them, it’s critical that you communicate those expectations clearly. Here are a few ways to get started:
Much like a high school group project where one member does all the work, your board dynamic may be one of a few shining stars and many passive players. Although you may have done a stellar job of communicating your expectations (see above), not all board members rise to a group challenge. Blanketed requests for help rarely yield 100% participation because it’s easy to hide in a group or wait for others to go first. Instead, try to create individualized assignments for your board. If you focus your requests on maximizing each member’s specialty, interests, and even personality, you’ll create opportunities for more meaningful engagement.
It’s fine to set expectations when addressing the full board. But make sure you provide a customized way for individual directors to take part. This will improve accountability, and it will also demonstrate to your board that you value their individual gifts.
We all love to feel honored. It’s human nature. We patronize businesses where they know our names or our favorite order and we gravitate toward friendships that build us up. It’s hard to want to honor your board when they aren’t doing their fair share. However, proactively providing them with acknowledgment may inspire them to step it up. It’s hard to hide a lack of commitment or service when you’re standing in the spotlight.
Also, praise individual board members as they do good things. Calling out gifts of time, service, or funds, and praising participation may inspire fellow directors to step up their game. Board engagement will increase in no time.
If a board feels disconnected from their fellow directors or the organization, they’re less likely to become involved. You may want some buffer between your governing body and the day-to-day operations of your nonprofit, but you don’t want that buffer to become a barrier. You can keep them in their lane by giving them with meaningful ways to engage. Here are a few suggestions:
Keep in mind that a simple courtesy like printed board packets can help directors feel equipped to participate. If nothing else, ask your directors what your team can provide to help them feel prepared for their work.
What you’re perceiving as disengagement may actually be intimidation. New directors may refrain from interacting because they simply don’t know what to do. Unfortunately, Roberts Rules and nonprofit accounting are not common knowledge. In fact, experienced directors may shy away from financials, policy, or other topics because of intimidation.
A little bit of education can go a long way and do wonders for board engagement. Begin providing high-level education on topics that are unique to nonprofit work and relevant to board governance. This could include audits, planned giving, and nonprofit accounting practices. Also, check out our Board Basics Series for 15-minute training that can be incorporated into your regular meetings. If you’re planning to use Robert’s Rules to govern your meetings, provide a quick-start guide to help directors learn the ropes.
Ultimately, building the confidence of your board will equip them to serve your cause and become endeared to it. Keep in mind that some board members are truly checked out. There is no amount of education, confidence, or honor you can provide to help them fulfill their obligation. In that case, focus your energy on those who demonstrate interest and energy for your mission. Those are the ones who will help you do more good.