A How-To Guide for Nonprofit Board Engagement
Effective nonprofit board management is about more than To-Do lists or getting through an agenda. You need to be able to communicate effectively, to let your board know what your organization expects from them and, above all, respect your members’ time and service. These qualities will ensure you have engaged and effective board members who see serving your organization as a rewarding experience, not just a resume booster or a chore to get through. Here are some points to include in your nonprofit board how-to guide.
Build Rapport Between Board Members (and Staff)
You have a lot to cover during your meetings, but taking a few moments to welcome everyone, to do a tour through your facility and to make sure any new members or key staffers are introduced will help everyone communicate better. Start the meeting with a brief icebreaker. Nonprofit veterans know that getting everyone to speak at the beginning of a meeting increases their participation throughout the meeting.
Team board members up when possible to ensure that everyone gets to know their fellow board members. Many boards have a formal or informal mentor program as well, pairing experienced board members with new recruits. Consider some kind of annual or semi-annual event. A breakfast with a special speaker, a chance to spend some time with your organization on a normal day or even a weekend outing can help build bonds and establish rapport between your board members and with your staff.
Respect your Members’ Time
Unless you have a board stocked with retirees, you likely have some driven professionals at the peak of their careers. While this is excellent for your organization, it means that you’ll really need to manage their time effectively. Communication is important, but most members will prefer to receive a digest of details about your group’s ongoing activities and context about specific agenda items, not a steady stream of commentary.
Have a bullet list available when you speak to one of your members or to the group. This ensures that you get to the point quickly and that you don’t inadvertently leave anything out. Emails, phone calls, texts and other forms of communication are all touchpoints, and you should try to make every contact point you have meaningful and with purpose. Determining what can wait, what can be delivered at your next meeting and what is truly urgent allows you to get things done, while still being respectful of the board’s time.
Your board is busy, so your meetings need to be scheduled and set up in a way that is efficient and effective. You should have any staff member who needs to present an issue, item or question available to the board, even if they do not spend the entire time in the room.
Any ongoing or upcoming projects should be detailed in full with highlights in bullets or as a cover page. This allows everyone to get up to date quickly and make any decisions that are needed. Anything you can do to organize information, set discussions up in advance or help structure official meetings in an efficient way will allow you to make the most of the time your board has together.
What do you expect from your board? If you don’t know, they won’t either. You should outline the expectations you have and what you wish the board to do for your brand. Once these items are written down, you can clearly convey your needs and measure success. Be sure to cover these expectations in your orientation process for new members. Some boards even have incoming board members sign a “board member expectation agreement,” which serves to solidify the commitment to deliver certain outcomes.
Every board has specific responsibilities. Members should commit to attend meetings, be invested in the mission and fully comply with all governance documents. Beyond these basics, your organization may have specific needs based on the industry you are in, the community you serve and even your legal responsibilities. Your board should be aware of and agree to comply to these expectations as part of their service.
Work with the executive committee and use the expectations you’ve outlined to define success and to see how individual board members are doing. You may need to do this at various times. A good rule of thumb is to revisit board member performance a few months after a new member joins, if a regular member seems to be losing interest, and on an annual basis for anyone else. By measuring performance you can determine how healthy your board is and provide assistance to anyone who needs it. The feedback you tactfully provide can help a faltering member get back on track or help a new member find their role in the board. Be creative, and consider a gamified public “scoreboard” to track progress toward goals. Perhaps offer a fun incentive like a silly trophy to the top-performing board member.
Communicating efficiently with your board, creating a welcoming, close-knit group and having clearly defined expectations can help you manage a diverse group of professionals and create an active and effective team for your brand.
Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Ind.
Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning and everything else that goes into running a board of directors.