Having board members that are actively engaged in the mission and performance of the organisation is highly critical. However, keeping a board engaged requires work. For instance, a study of 200 non-profits in the United States reveals that only 15 per cent of non-profit boards are involved in fundraising, while 60 per cent of non-profits wished their boards supported their fundraising efforts. This presents an obvious disconnect between expectation and reality. It can also be quite frustrating for both staff and board members. So, what can you do to engage your board?
To start with, board engagement goes beyond attending meetings or signing documents. It refers to the commitment level (intellectual, physical, ambassadorial and emotional) that a board clearly demonstrates to the organisation and its mission. Engagement comes in different forms. Board members can bring different things to the table. To access all the talents and resources within your board, you need to develop a board engagement strategy that aligns with your overall organisational objectives.
First things first! Make sure you recruit the right people
It is very important to get the basics right, and this starts with the recruitment process for board members. First, you’d need to determine what your organisation requires; do you need someone with great connections with other foundations and wealthy individuals or someone with more connections within the community? When you’ve identified what skills and experience your non-profit needs, then you are ready to find and recruit board members.
For both new and existing non-profits, the boards should have a balance of talent and organisational competency. While it is not compulsory to select people who have previous board experience, they must share the organisation’s mission, be passionate about its cause and be ready to contribute towards the achievement of its objectives. Effective board members also understand the difference between governance and management. The governing body provides leadership, oversight, strategic direction and outlines the organisation’s mission. That is, governance provides the framework for management, while management organises the routine and administrative work that drives the operations of the organisation.
It is also important to avoid people who serve simultaneously on many other boards. You may not get the best from people who juggle multiple commitments.
It doesn’t exist if it is not written
After finding and recruiting board members, it is important to examine the written expectations required of them. The best board members want to know how they fit into the organisation's big picture. What does their attendance to meetings mean? That is, what unique perspectives are they bringing that distinguishes them from other board members? Board members are better engaged when they know that their talents, expertise, passions, assets, and networks will be harnessed in meaningful ways. Board members are also more effective when they have specific (but not too many) tasks, this makes it easy to link their engagement with the strategic direction.
It is also important to involve the board members when developing your board policy to secure their buy-in. Ask your board members to identify ways in which they can engage. This way, you can hold them accountable and they are also more inclined to engage because they were part of designing the policy.
Develop a Board Engagement Plan
It is advisable to develop a board engagement plan that will ensure that board members are always kept abreast on latest industry trends and organisational challenges and/or more importantly, successes. This could be through regular meetings, emails and telephone calls. You could also engage board members in more creative ways; for example, the Executive Director could commit to having one-on-one coffee meetings or lunch with a board member every month. That way, you can cover issues that may not have been raised at the official board meeting.
Nurture a Relationship Outside of the Boardroom
Flowing from the above, it is important to nurture a personal relationship with board members beyond their official status. Board members can get really overwhelmed; get to know them and allow them to know you. Think of activities that can create a community bond among board members and take their minds off funding or performance related issues for a while. This can have a positive impact on their morale and foster a productive environment. Think of it as a financial investment, when people know that you’re not just looking for what to get, but what to give, they are also willing to give their best.
Recognise and Celebrate Engagement
When board members are actively engaged, recognise and celebrate them, if possible in public. As the board provides leadership to the organisation, show them how their decisions are helping the organisation to achieve its strategic mission. Let them see how their specific tasks are also contributing to the organisation’s progress. Make them proud of what they are doing and what they represent. This would sustain their engagement and make them true ambassadors.
There are many other ways can keep your board members engaged. The most important thing is to remember that board members are also people. Identify the right people, make them see the value they are bringing, communicate constantly with them and celebrate them.
Oyindamola Adegboye is an intern at WACSI as part of the Erasmus Mundus Scholar in Education Policies for Global Development (GLOBED), under the Knowledge Management Unit.
Disclaimer: The author of this article, Oyindamola Adegboye, writes this in a personal capacity and does not speak for WACSI.