Board Engagement (or getting your board to do the stuff you need!)

In Leadership by Lisa Selzler

One of the most common complaints of Executive Directors is that their boards aren’t engaged. But what does that even mean? Usually it means board members show up once a month but are missing-in-action otherwise.Often it isn’t their fault that they are only meeting that minimum requirement. People want to contribute but very few are trained to be board members. They don’t intuitively know what is needed or how they can help.

That’s where the smart executive steps in! Spend the last hour of your Friday afternoon thinking about the help the organization needs and aligning that with your board members using the following:

Build on Strengths

People usually become directors to serve. They bring helpful, useful skills to your organization. You likely know what those skills are for each board member, since you likely recruited them specifically for their background and knowledge!

Now capitalize on that. Be thoughtful about the strengths of each member and ask them to contribute in a way that allows them to bring that strength to benefit the organization. An obvious way to do this is the have your CPA explain the organization’s financial statements to the rest of the board in terms that a non-CPA can understand.

A less obvious way is to ask a detail-oriented person on your board to proofread marketing materials or a grant application. This would result in both a better final draft and a board member growing in their understanding of the organization’s work.

Give Specific Assignments

Board members are often busy people. They choose to volunteer with you on top of jobs, families, other civic responsibilities not to mention hobbies or vacation. If you want a busy person to respond, ask them to complete a concrete action rather than sending out a laundry list of needs to the whole board.

Research shows that our minds are less able to choose when there are large numbers of choices presented. We are better able to sort through three things to make a decision than 27. Make it even easier for your board member. Ask for a specific task from a specific person – like writing personal thank you notes on gift receipts, reviewing a lease agreement, or calling to thank a donor. People want to feel needed and special. And, if you are ask someone individually to do something, it is harder for them to ignore your request.

Set Them Up for Success

If the board member feels that they were successful in completing the task, they are much more likely to step up next time you ask. So, give them everything the need to succeed. Provide background information in preparation for a meeting, a script for the thank you call, or phone numbers of past donors to invite to the upcoming event. And preparing them well reflects on you, your organization, and the board member. Yes, these are professional adults, but they still need support and guidance to complete the assignment well.

Start Small and Build Up

You don’t start many donor relationships by making a first ask for $1,000,000 – it’s much more common to ask for a smaller amount first and build up to that larger gift over time.

Fully engaging a board of directors follows a similar ladder of engagement. For example, if you are starting at square one with engaging board members in fundraising for your organization, start with asking members to place thank you calls or signing appeal letters. The next step might be to ask them to attend a site visit with a foundation. Their ladder of engagement might lead to them accompanying you on a donor visit to help ask for a gift.

At each step up the ladder of engagement, make sure they are learning skills they will need for the next step. Connect those dots for them. And be clear where it is you want that ladder to lead. Ask: if this board member were fully engaged in (fundraising, marketing, long-term planning, etc.), what would they be doing?

Engaging board members in the work of your organization takes time and effort. However, the return on that investment of time will be board members who contribute in ways that make the organization more successful and reduces stress, for you and your board.