By Darrin Wasniewski, State Main Street Coordinator and Organization/Promotion Specialist

Previous posts in this series covered the importance of organizational culture and moving volunteers along the engagement continuum. Now we will highlight ways to keep board members engaged and excited about leading your organization. As staff, we often forget that board members are volunteers. When we see them at least once a month and they are involved in the most pertinent discussions, it is easy to forget that they have lives and priorities outside of our organizations. Board members are susceptible to fatigue and can quickly lose the drive they felt when they first joined the board of directors.

Your board of directors should have a committee whose responsibility is board development. One of the best examples I have come across for board engagement was shared by Marc Smiley. He has developed a board member application and a board member agreement that goes beyond others that I have viewed before. When recruiting prospective board members, an organization should treat it as an interview process. You should hope the potential director is as much interested in learning about your organization as you in learning about them, so that both sides can gauge a potential fit. Smiley’s application, linked above, helps to understand what the prospective board member brings to the table and, more importantly, what they hope to get from the experience. The board development committee should review these applications and make sure the organization can also meet the needs of the prospective member.

Once seated on the board, all members should complete a board member agreement annually. In my opinion, this should replace what was previously considered the best practice, a statement of expectations. The “statement of expectations” approach is fairly one-sided: the organization states what they expect from a board member; the board member signs, and then is evaluated annually to make sure he or she is living up to expectations. This is not the best way to develop a strong relationship and a life-long advocate. In contrast, a board member agreement creates a relationship of mutual expectations and accountability, with a two-way street in which each board member lists what he or she desires from the experience: what they expect, what they hope to gain, and if there are any personal or professional growth opportunities they seek. Board leadership can keep these stated desires in mind when developing projects, and can offer opportunities to members to help them achieve their goals.

The other “direction” of the two-way street is the traditional statement of expectations. It is a best practice for an organization to be transparent about what it expects from its members. This could include meeting attendance, participation in projects, financial contributions, or in the case of my previous organization, attendance at workshops offered by our state Main Street America™ coordinating program. Also included in the organization’s expectations should be the board member’s personal action plan. This process involves a brainstorming session by the board of all the potential actions that can help the organization meet its goals. Board members would choose three and write them down on an index card to be collected by the board development committee. At the meeting, each board member would also share publicly one of the items on his or her personal action plan. A board peer would make sure that fellow board members have the resources and information to follow through on their personal action plan items. The board development committee would use all of the above information when they meet with board members to assess their experience at the end of each year.

How organizations structure meetings is an important engagement tactic as well. Too often, the meetings become 60 to 90 minutes of report-outs, without opportunity for much else. Beyond the boredom factor, nonprofit boards are responsible for strategic planning, fiduciary oversight, leadership development and resource development, and have no time left for these responsibilities if they are spending the entire meeting listening to reports. This can be solved with a simple structural change in the meeting format. The first half of the agenda can be dedicated to the business of the organization: review of minutes and financials, questions about updates shared in advance, etc. The second half can then be structured as open discussion around a larger topic. Some examples include:

  • What changes do we see coming to our community/region/state? How does that impact our district? Our organization?
  • What are we doing to make sure resources exist for our work?
  • What would it look like if we became the organization that attracted top talent, both paid and volunteer?

Setting time aside for these discussions stimulates board member excitement about your cause. Most times it also leads to deeper and longer-lasting engagement, which creates greater impact.

Board member engagement should not end when a member’s term ends. Recall from the previous post, the image of concentric circles with the board at the core surrounded by the rings of committee volunteer, advisor, donor, and those who know about your organization. From the beginning, your organization should have the expectation of continued service following a board term, to keep these core parties to the organization’s mission involved over the long term and avoid losing their expertise and commitment to the mission. For instance, former board members could be encouraged to volunteer for projects, either as leaders or for an individual task. If their life situation has changed and they do not have the time for such a commitment, ask if you can call on them as an advisor, meaning a periodic email, phone call, or coffee to seek their counsel. Robin Moses, executive director of Downtown Mainstreet Inc. in La Crosse, shared that she instituted such a practice after a board development workshop. One long-time board member’s situation no longer afforded much time in the area, so she asked if she could count the person as an advisor, and the person agreed. Periodic check-ins keep these advisors engaged, so that they can return to an increased level of involvement should their situation ever change. Even if this never happens, at the very least, Robin has perspective of someone with institutional knowledge of the organization who can offer qualified advice.

Board members provide a valuable service to our organizations. We must be strategic about keeping them engaged during their board term and especially afterwards. While not difficult, these changes should be made with intention. Wisconsin Main Street offers coaching for your organization on board development. Feel free to email me if you would like to explore new board development practices for your organization.