How to Effectively Cultivate Board Roles and Responsibilities
You just elected a handful of new board members. What’s next? Giving them a big white binder? Conducting an orientation?
That’s all fine and good, but do those things really help volunteers understand their roles and responsibilities as board members? Do these things really help them make an impact on the organization? When I was an executive director, I once attended a two-day training with my board chair. Even though he was right there with me for every moment of the training, he looked at me and said, “You’re going to let me know what you need me to do, right, Jen?”
I think many times we completely miss the boat with board members. We think a day-long training or a huge bin-der of resources will somehow transform these volunteers into people who understand what they need to be doing.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Board members need regular opportunities to act out their roles in a collaborative environment. They need to see and feel how it works, and we need to help them by providing the space and keeping the organization’s strategic goals front-and-center.
This may sound easier said than done. But in reality, it doesn’t require a big budget or oodles of time. You can start today by making tweaks to your
current processes to empower your board. Start with the small things — like making sure onboarding binders and board meeting agendas are focused and strategic, not vague and overwhelming — and use these wins to support larger added efforts to work strategically and engage board members.
Before you know it, you’ll have a group of enthusiastic volunteers who are eager to share their expertise and good judgment with your mission. What could be better?
Board Development Tips
If you’re ready to get started, here are tips for creating fantastic board members:
Keep it simple (and focused). Don’t overwhelm your volunteers with information. Instead, think about what you really need them to do. How can you align action with strategic priorities? Think about the top three to five things board members can do to support your organization’s goals and then…
Talk about these strategic opportunities in your board meetings. What percent of your board meetings are forward-focused? Adjust your agenda to focus on the top three to five things board members can do to support strategic goals.
Remember, board members are volunteers and have busy lives. The relationship between board and staff should be a partnership, with staff supporting board members’ efforts to do strategic work. Equipping board members to feel confident in what you need them to do is imperative.
Understand that 100% of board members won’t do what you ask 100% of the time. Sometimes even
getting one-third or half is a good result. Don’t get too frustrated. Let some of your board “champions” set the example and talk about their good work in a board meeting. This can often foster peer leadership and will encourage more board members to get involved, particularly if the task is a bit of a culture shift — like doing more outreach, fundraising or thank-you calls.
Conduct an annual assessment of board meeting effectiveness. Further engage your board members and solicit valuable information by asking their opinion of board meeting effectiveness. Find out what they enjoy the most, like the least and recommend for improvement. You can conduct an online survey or just start a discussion at your next meeting. Then, incorporate some of the findings into your next meeting agenda.
Review the board member job description annually. As your nonprofit grows and changes, so do board member responsibilities. At the beginning or end of each fiscal year, make it a habit to review the board member job description and ensure it still represents what you need members focusing on for the next year.
Conduct a board self-assessment annually. Encourage board members to take a moment to assess how they are doing. Many board members are uncomfortable with this because they fear it will become a finger-pointing session, which isn’t the case at all. The idea is to build better systems of support to ensure board members are working in an environment that helps them make a difference. Ask questions like, “What would make this experience more enjoyable?” and “Did we accomplish all that we set out to do this year?” in order to discern individual and group needs.
Does your organization talk about board roles and responsibilities? Do you provide opportunities for members to contribute toward strategic goals?
If Not, What’s Stopping You?
You don’t need extra time and money, just a few changes to your current processes that more fully integrate your board members in ways that highlight their key strategic role.
Start now by taking the first small step. Use our tips to create a culture of openness, support and forward-thinking that will empower your board — and change the way you do business for the better.
Jennifer “Jen” Pendleton is a self-described board governance “nerd” who believes sound leadership and strong organizational culture are keys to nonprofit success.
She’s also driven to help these leaders identify their nonprofits’ unique qualities and roles in the community, with the goal of making nonprofit magic happen and bringing vibrant visions to life.
At ASP, Jen anchors the Indianapolis office and has expanded the firm’s relationships with nonprofit leaders and community foundations around the state. She speaks at conferences and conducts board trainings across the Midwest as a leader of the firm’s education and outreach efforts.
Before coming to ASP, Jen served as president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Boone County (Indiana), where she led a campaign to raise $1 million in matching funds from the Lilly Endowment for the county’s Community Impact Fund.
Prior to Boone County, Jen served as executive director of Kappa Alpha Theta Foundation, a $30 million national education foundation in Indianapolis. There she worked with board and staff to successfully launch the organization’s first major campaign in decades. She spent 10 years at Riley Children’s Foundation, also in Indianapolis, in a variety of roles including major gift officer and director of the hospital’s telethon and events department.
Jen is an avid volunteer who shares her time and expertise freely with a variety of nonprofits. She currently serves as a board member for Exodus Refugee Immigration and is a past-president of the Foundation for Fraternal Excellence, both based in Indianapolis. She also serves on the advisory board of Kappa Alpha Theta’s Depauw Chapter in Greencastle, Indiana.
Jen holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ball State University and is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE).