Change Your Approach to Board Engagement

This post originally appeared in August 2016 in the BoardSource Blog.


How often have you heard about frustration with nonprofit board members not being as engaged as they should be?

Perhaps you have experienced this trying situation yourself.

It’s a common complaint and it’s voiced by nonprofit staff and board members alike. Engagement expectations that can range from fundraising, to executing leadership roles, to participating in events frequently go unmet.

But why?

The question is overdue for a new answer—because approaches of the past don’t appear to be reducing the level of frustration, do they?

A New Solution Is Needed

Up until the late 1800s, hospitals were notorious environments for widespread infection. Surgical patients in particular suffered from infections and frequently died.

The procedural practices of the day by health care professionals, though unthinkable now, were then standard operating procedure. Imagine surgeons moving from patient to patient without changing blood-stained operating gloves or even washing their hands.

A high patient death rate persisted without an identifiable cause. The medical community and families of lost loved ones must have been very frustrated.

The unsanitary conditions continued until challenged by Dr. Joseph Lister, who is credited with challenging conventional thinking and advocating the use of sterile procedures as a way to reduce infection.

In the nonprofit world the consequence of a letdown in board member engagement is more serious than just causing someone (maybe you) to be frustrated.  The very real consequence is the impact on the organization’s ability to achieve its mission.

These missions do affect lives.

Like Dr. Lister, I am advocating trying a different method to solving a compelling problem. If your nonprofit is not benefiting from its desired level of board involvement, it’s time to recognize that past and present practices to encourage engagement aren’t working.

More training that tells board members what they ought to be doing isn’t the answer. What is required is a change in approach to board member engagement in order to reverse the negative results you are experiencing.

Dr. Lister’s methodology involved taking actions such as changing clothes worn during surgeries, washing hands, and using disinfectants to clean wounds and surgical incisions. Those actions all involved changing behavior. And not that of the patients. It was the health care professionals who had to alter their practices to achieve a different result.

Rather than continue to be stressed by expecting board member behavior to change, consider adjusting your approach to produce new results. Here are three actions to a different strategy to improve board member engagement. Each of these actions requires new behaviors by nonprofit leaders.

Clarify and Enforce Expectations

It’s important to separate expectations into governance and non-governance related tasks. Being all-in with governance roles isn’t optional for board members. So if participation is coming up short, that’s a major problem. It must be dealt with and not left to fester as a tolerated source of irritation. Waiting for a term to expire may be the easy way out, but how does allowing non-performance to persist impact the mission, not to mention the morale of dedicated members?

Direct interaction is required. Individuals must realize failure-to-perform puts them and the organization at risk. Once requirements for governance engagement are clearly explained, the un-engaged board member has the choice of accepting his or her legal duty or withdrawing from the board. Sometimes tougher action may be necessary to protect the organization, such as removing someone not willing to comply with their required governance involvement.

Would Dr. Lister stand by and allow unsafe medical practices to continue? He took the stand that strong antiseptics must be used in his procedures. Likewise, strong action by your organization may be unavoidable.

There is an organizational responsibility for ensuring safe governance practices in the boardroom are followed. To improve engagement with non-governance duties, begin with questioning whose expectations they are.

If the same performance needs continuously go unmet, then it’s likely board members do not accept them as their responsibility. If your board is composed of busy corporate or community leaders, it’s possible they don’t consider the tasks to be a worthwhile use of their time. If the board has a history of not addressing certain non-governance jobs, consider moving those tasks to others, such as non-board volunteers or staff.

Board members are valuable assets. Develop their scope of involvement accordingly. What are the most important priorities you want them to be engaged with? When setting expectations, consider taking an inclusionary approach by board members in that decision-making process. That tactic will help develop buy-in for the work to be done.

Improve Communication

Sure, you’re communicating about expectations, but if the message isn’t getting the desired action, evaluate the effectiveness of how it’s delivered. And change your approach accordingly. Performance expectation should be an integral part of the discussion with board prospects, continued during orientation, and continuously reinforced by the board chair.

During an initial conversation about expectations, don’t assume individuals have a complete understanding about what their role will involve. BoardSource’s Leading with Intent repeatedly reports challenges with board members not having adequate knowledge about their responsibilities.

You must confirm acceptance and commitment to perform the requested tasks if someone is realistically to be expected to meet a desired performance level. That confirmation also creates an opportunity for accountability. In addition, the ongoing dialogue should include recognition and appreciation of jobs well done.

Change Your Recruiting Process

Be more purposeful with recruiting to help avoid board member engagement issues.

Many nonprofits unwittingly contribute to a lack of engagement by offering board positions to the wrong people. Going after busy people because they get things done can be a mistake. How many number one priorities can someone realistically have? And are you willing to be less than a top priority?

My work to understand personality characteristics shows me the different traits each of us has greatly influence what type of board member an individual will be. For example, individuals with type A, take charge, commander qualities aren’t those who typically do details. So if you want big-picture strategy that’s good, but if you have tasks involving follow up actions you should consider someone else.

If you want board members to be fundraisers, get fundraisers. Not everyone is willing to ask others for money. Assuming they will behave differently because they are a board member is just asking to be frustrated.

When approaching new prospects, make expectations clear to them. Don’t wait until they’re on the board to explain what obligations they’re expected to take on. Don’t be so eager to get someone on board that you fail to ask enough questions to be satisfied that it is a good fit. Slot fillers, those who are invited to join a board because the time wasn’t taken to find a truly qualified candidate, are almost always sure to wind up being unengaged.

Above all remember when recruiting, sometimes a “No” from a prospective board member can be the best answer for all concerned.

Individual Action Will Make a Difference

To improve engagement, clarify and enforce your organization’s needs and expectations.

Maintain consistent communication about organization responsibilities. Recognize those individuals who are meeting expectations. Finally, consider changes you may need to make to improve your own interaction effectiveness and communication skills. Frustration with board member engagement may never be totally eliminated but it can be greatly reduced by following these action suggestions.

Dr. Lister changed public health. You can change public service—by rethinking your approach to board member engagement. Help the nonprofit sector benefit by communicating your thoughts on this challenging issue.

I encourage you to share this post with your nonprofit leader colleagues.



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