Engaged board members are instrumental advocates and ambassadors for your nonprofit organization. Identifying and securing them can be challenging, but once they join your mission, they become an invaluable resource.
From the initial solicitation through the completion of their terms, your board members should feel valued, accomplished, and tasked.
Here are tips for board member engagement to help you build lifelong ambassadors for your cause. To help guide you through these strategies, we’ve broken our discussion down into four distinct stages:
- Recruiting New Board Members
- Onboarding New Board Members
- Building a Board Member Engagement Strategy
- Staying Connected With Past Board Members
With these tips in mind, you’ll be well on your way to attracting, securing, and keeping invested board members who are passionate and well-prepared to advocate for your cause.
1. Recruiting New Board Members
Before you can bring a new board member onboard and begin a successful partnership, your organization will need to identify the best prospects and kickstart engagement beginning with the interview process.
Whether you’re a fledgling nonprofit who has never initiated this kind of search before or you’ve been down this road a dozen times, we recommend working with a nonprofit consulting firm to help you tackle the board member search in the most effective, efficient way.
A specialized nonprofit executive search firm can help you craft an executive search or governance committee to identify prospects, work with you to develop an interview strategy, and help you sort through potential candidates with an expert eye.
As you prepare a shortlist of potential candidates with the help of your consultant, look for individuals who have a demonstrated history of advocacy and genuine interest in your mission.
You never want anyone to feel obligated to accept a board seat, because only candidates willing to join will be true ambassadors of your cause!
The natural progression of the recruitment process allows the candidate to interview your organization as you do the same, since this should be a mutual decision that both parties feel excited about.
Once vetted by the governance committee, the prospect should meet with other members and key staff, including your executive director.
Make the most of this important face-time with your candidate by following these tips:
- Keep it brief. Plan for the meeting to last around 30 minutes and include a review of the organization’s history, mission, and board structure/requirements on the agenda.
- Enjoy a casual, conversational environment. During this meeting, the candidate should be comfortable asking questions and engaging in an informal discussion to get to know your team better.
- Take a facility tour. This walkthrough should highlight your mission, demonstrate the impact of your cause, and engage your prospect. Personalize the experience by customizing the tour to the candidate’s passions and inviting their family, if appropriate.
Once the potential board member has met with leadership and understands the mission, have them meet with one or more past or present members. These board members will authenticate their experiences and confirm the board obligations and commitments required to be successful.
Takeaway: Committing to an intentional, strategic recruitment process will ensure a successful collaboration between new members, existing members, and staff. Don’t forget to enlist the help of a nonprofit consulting firm to streamline this process and gather the objective help you may need.
2. Onboarding New Board Members
The onboarding process for new board members should be seamless. A detailed schedule that allows for certain modifications will make the candidate feel respected and give them the guidance they need to dive into their new role with confidence.
Prior to their first board meeting, each new member should attend an orientation.
The length of the orientation will depend on what’s covered and the number of attendees. In most instances, an hourlong orientation will give the board member enough information, prepare them for community involvement, and allow for questions.
The CEO, CFO, DOD, and any other staff that commonly interact with the nonprofit board should attend each orientation. Additionally, the presence of a governance committee member encourages a conversation-type setting and demonstrates commitment.
Create a clear and concise agenda that includes briefing attendee(s) on challenges, accomplishments, current goals, and future plans. Prepare an informational binder for each board member and include relevant information, such as:
- Mission and vision statements
- Organization history
- Schedule of board meetings
- Previous and current year’s budgets
- List of current board members and emeriti with contact information
- Staff leadership with contact information
- Board bylaws
- Obtained accreditation(s)
- Board committees (including descriptions and members)
- Board expectations
- Past board minutes
- Strategic plan, master plan, and/or future goals
No two onboarding experiences are totally alike (for organizations or board members), so you’ll of course need to examine our tips against your nonprofit’s needs to make sure you’re covering all your bases.
As with your recruitment, an experienced nonprofit consulting firm can help you tailor the process to meet your specific needs as well as the needs of your new board member.
To learn more about how a consultant can help you throughout this process (and in other areas of your organization), check out this resource from Aly Sterling Philanthropy!
Takeaway: Create an onboarding plan that helps your new board member become acclimated to their role. Keep communication open to ensure their first days working with your organization in this capacity are as seamless as possible.
3. Building a Board Member Engagement Strategy
Board member interaction should be consistent, informative, and objective.
Each ambassador has been selected for their ability and commitment to making a difference, and it’s your duty to provide them with the necessary resources.
If staffing permits, identify a single person to serve as the primary point of contact, such as a board liaison or the Executive Director’s executive assistant. Board interaction will vary among different organizations, but you are guaranteed to have meaningful contact with them at board meetings, committee meetings, retreats, socials, and events.
Board meeting frequency
The frequency of board meetings is at the discretion of each organization and reflects the organization’s needs and bylaws. Smaller boards may meet once a month, while larger ones tend to meet quarterly.
Follow these guidelines for scheduling appropriate, productive meetings:
- Clearly communicate dates and materials. Provide at least a week for members to prepare and read any necessary materials. This will set the tone for productive working sessions, open discussion, and resolutions.
- Set agendas in advance. Show members that you respect their time by letting them know the purpose(s) of your meeting well in advance. If members don’t know what to expect at the meeting, they won’t know how to adequately prepare to ensure a productive session.
- Limit unnecessary reports. Your goal is to make each meeting productive and ensure that members feel their time is being spent wisely. Reporting is impactful but not often the best use of time. You’ll find that board meetings with brief reporting and heavy discussion are the most productive.
Board retreats and socials
To boost community within your board, consider getting them together outside of the office at a retreat or social.
Board retreats are extremely successful and ideal for any size. An annual retreat offers a change of scenery, enables in-depth working sessions, and promotes camaraderie.
The size of your organization will influence the retreat’s agenda. Large organizations might consider hosting a two-day retreat (half-day sessions) with a cocktail hour and dinner, while smaller organizations could host an afternoon retreat.
Location is key, so choose a desirable setting and invite spouses/guests to the evening social. Incorporating family demonstrates unity, increases attendance, and displays stewardship, which all leads to a happier board!
Similarly, socials are an ideal method to build relationships and encourage participation.
Boards, especially large ones, can be intimidating, difficult to engage, and overwhelming. To break the ice, host a gathering with spouses and guests invited. This will create a relaxed atmosphere that encourages interaction.
Sometimes it’s hard to justify socials in the budget, but be creative and host one that’s economical and effective.
For example, throw a cocktail hour at a board member’s home immediately following a board meeting. This scenario relieves a large part of the financial strain and provides a low-key setting for networking, which is one reason why many choose to serve in the first place.
To maximize efficiency and target distinct areas within your organization, nonprofit boards are divided into committees tailored to specific subject matters and departments.
Board committees should have their own meeting schedule separate from board meetings. They should meet at least once prior to each board of directors meeting and should be prepared to report back about their challenges, goals, and progress.
Each committee needs a chairperson and an assigned staff member to provide industry knowledge. For example, your advancement committee can be chaired by your largest fundraiser on the board and overseen by your director of development.
Takeaway: Ongoing stewardship is imperative to keeping any board member engaged. Remember, it’s easier to keep a donor than to acquire a new one, and this also applies to board members!
4. Staying Connected with Past Board Members
Retired and emeritus board members can be some of your strongest advocates in the community. Yes, they’ve completed their terms, but that doesn’t mean they no longer warrant your focus.
Ongoing engagement of these community leaders is extremely important, but your attention level will likely vary from person to person. Current members must receive the most communication, consistent updates, access to sensitive information, and organizational happenings. Continue to engage emeriti and retired members, but in a different fashion.
Let’s explore how to navigate these important relationships.
Past board member stewardship
A board member’s impact level doesn’t decrease once they rotate off the board. Their time and commitment will dwindle, but their ambassador status still holds true.
Many retired members welcome a certain level of staff communication, granting you access to their resources, connections, and relationships.
A retired board member can be as impactful as a current member and should be valued within your organization. They will most likely move on to other boards, but they will be more than happy to offer their expertise when needed.
Customize their stewardship level and engage them with ideas, committees, projects, and events. Show them you still want to connect, so they don’t forget about your mission.
Emeritus members have completed their board service and upon retirement will retain their titles (with voting approval) in honor of their service and commitment.
Not all retired members will receive this privilege as it should be reserved for ones that served with distinction and excellence. Because these members are so distinguished and highly valued within your organization, it’s even more imperative that you continue to steward them in a unique, deliberate way.
With emeritus status, a member’s attendance is no longer required at board meetings to form quorum. They are not subject to the bylaw attendance policy, and they are not entitled to vote or hold an officer position.
Emeriti will forever hold this title, and for that reason, you need to continue high-level engagement by including them in the following areas:
- Communications, such as notices and information provided to the board of directors
- The annual board of directors meeting
- Committee participation
- All major events, like your annual gala
- As interview subjects for feasibility studies
- Retreats, socials, and other special meetings
Note that these members may not choose to attend all of these opportunities, and that’s okay! Emeriti have already dedicated a lot of time and energy to your nonprofit board, so there should never be any pressure for them to commit to more than they’re interested in.
Takeaway: Past board members and emeriti are still a valuable part of your organization, and they will continue to show their affection for your mission if you honor them with respect and consistent engagement.
Board members can guide you on strategy, staffing, financing, legal issues, organizational design questions, and more. Allow their enthusiasm, wisdom, and experience to guide and strengthen your cause.
If you’re willing to put in the right amount of effort to strengthen and steward your board members, their loyalty and passion will only increase over time, benefiting your efforts.