by Kris Kindelsperger
Have you experienced the following with your organization?
- Board members who have poor attendance at meetings, don't seem to become fully engaged and may eventually fade away from your organization.
- Board meetings that are full of reports but fail to create an interactive and paticipatory environment.
- Board members who do not fully embrace a culture of philanthropy.
- Board members who do not characterize their board engagement as a substantive experience.
- Board members who have difficulty finding the appropriate ways to share their expertise and ideas without venturing into micro-management.
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All of these experiences are a function, at some level, of a lack of effective board engagement. An engaged board member is committed to your mission, dedicated to her/his board responsibilities, and is willing to give time, expertise, influence, and resources.
If you would like to enhance your board engagement, don’t worry there are steps you can take.
Establishing board engagement begins early in the process and doesn’t end once the board is formed. Engagement is ongoing and activities should take place throughout recruitment, integration, and retention.
Building a good board begins with pre-board involvement and vetting. Board recruitment should be a high priority and ongoing. You should “test” prospective board members through advisory boards, non-board membership on committees, participation in events, special opportunities to “look behind the curtain,” etc.
Keep in mind, this is the reverse of the way many approach board recruitment. Often, we hear, “If we can just get them on the board we can make them into true believers.” If you carefully vet prospective board members in advance, you will get fewer surprises and stronger board members.
Orientation is actually an opportunity to “launch” new board members. Our instinct is often to slowly ease new board members into the organization. In reality, many board members are “lost” in the first few months of their association with you.
You need to be aggressive in orientation and in finding a meaningful slot for each new board member right away. It is prudent, however, to go slower on fundraising.
Provide every board member with an aggressive, personalized, and mandatory orientation. Give them a deep dive into what you do and what makes you tick. Also make sure you show them not just the sizzle but also the warts so they get an authentic look at the opportunities as well as the challenges.
Board retention is about finding substance in the board experience for both staff and board. Creating intentional interaction with those who deliver the program – deans, instructors, musicians, program officers, artists, etc. – is key. Treat your board members as the insiders that they are and allow them to tackle substantive issues. Keep them educated about issues critical to your sector and have authentic conversations about the issues facing your organization. Ensure that every board meeting has at least one substantive issue to discuss that impacts the future and the mission of the organization.
Don’t get me wrong, truly engaging your board is not easy, nor is it a onetime task. Engagement needs to be managed intentionally and mission fit is critical. You have to be comfortable turning board members “loose” with your staff and artists when unpredictable results could occur. Engaged and satisfied board members are challenged, not given the easy road, which can sometimes be uncomfortable. But though this effort will take time, it is well worth it in the end.
A few examples of Board Engagement Activities:
- Give board members an opportunity to “look behind the curtain.” Provide unique opportunities that they would not experience otherwise, such as a chance to have one-on-one interactions with key staff members, such as an artist, professor/dean, researcher, zookeeper, etc.
- Give them hands-on ways to be involved. Let board members assist in fulfilling the organization’s mission without micromanaging, through volunteering, hosting shows or events, being tour guides, hosting alumni groups, etc.
- Have a mission moment at the start of every board meeting. This allows board members to hear from someone in the organization about what is happening in a particular area or project.
- Schedule personal meetings for the CEO with board members. These periodic intentional one-on-one meetings are an opportunity to discuss their board service and engagement.
- Assign mentors to each board member. Their role is to get the new board member engaged and make certain the acclimation to board membership is a good one. This not only engages the new board member, but also keeps the current board member active in sharing why he or she is on the board, etc.
- Communicate frequently with your board. Use email to communicate between meetings and events. Give them quick news updates, such as an announcement of a gift or grant, a great new staff member hired, a recognition received, booking a special artist or show, etc. Board members like to hear good news first.
- Consider the expertise of each board member and “exploit” it. Leverage the talents of your board members to expand the reach and the impact of the organization. Board members can geometrically multiply the good work of staff, if used effectively.