Planning For an Engaged Board
By Regina Funkhouser, Executive Director
Are you struggling with a less than fully functioning board? Do you find your board meetings lasting way too long and filled with conversations that produce no decisions and no action? Are your meetings filled with committee chairs rambling on about committee details? Do you have board members that consistently don’t show up? Do you struggle to get on the same page?
A fully engaged, active board doesn’t happen organically. It takes deliberate acts, concentrated efforts, planning and lots of behind the scenes work to create a board that understands their role and takes governance seriously.
Steps to engaging your board:
1) Recruit board members with a plan – and share the plan with the candidates Starting off your board development meetings with a statement that resembles “I know someone that may say yes” is a clear signal that all you are doing is filling the seats with beating hearts. Developing an engaged board member starts (and sometimes ends) with the recruitment process. Board members want to be part of an exclusive team and are honored and impressed that a board made every effort to be sure of a good fit, rather than simply seeking a beating heart that said yes. The recruitment process sets the expectations – any minimization of the legal duties, fundraising responsibilities or time commitment will eventually have a new board member asking if they have been tricked into making a commitment. If the recruitment process is done poorly and without deliberateness – you will have a board member that shows up to three meetings and then disappears, rarely speaks or worse yet – micromanages (micromanagers are not “bad” board members, but board members who are seeking their role – guessing what, exactly, they should be doing.) Set the bar high and lay out clear expectations of attendance, participation, donating, fundraising and leadership.
2) Recognize that board orientation is not a task – it is a process Handing a new board member a 3 inch binder with every policy, procedure, itemized budget and marketing piece from the last five years and going through it page by page is not orientation, it’s torture. I’m not saying never provide these items, I’m just saying that especially in the beginning, less is more and quality before quantity. Even if a new board member read every ream of paper you gave them, they cannot possibly retain or apply the knowledge. This practice will only overwhelm a new board member. It may take 18 months before a board member has been through a complete cycle of your budget process, your planning process, your evaluation process and committee process. Recognize that ongoing training to apply knowledge is critical to the ability to participate fully as a board member. If we continue to expect a new board member to “get it” after three months, we create a group of people who collectively think “I must be the only one who doesn’t understand this because I’m new, so I will remain mute and allow others to make decisions.”
3) Even the best board members need hand holding, follow up and reminders We choose board members based on their ability to get things done. Regardless of their passion for our mission – they have a job, a family, a life and other commitments that keep them very busy. Of course they want to donate – but don’t expect them to remember it’s been a year since their last donation. Don’t send them committee meeting notes a day before the next meeting – or worse – hand them out at the meeting – and expect a board member to remember what they volunteered to do. Board members need and appreciate reminders. Send an email to say “our next meeting is in two weeks, at our last meeting we agreed to ….”.
4) Create a mutually beneficial relationship If we expect Board Members to come prepared, rise to the occasion, work diligently as a group and expect to be intellectually taxed by complex and consequential questions then by golly we better deliver that opportunity. Allow your agenda to create this environment. If there is no discussion required, put the report: financial, committees, Executive Director’s, on the consent agenda. Don’t allow anyone to “read” to your board or for your board. They are big girls and boys and can do it themselves. Fill your board meetings with engaging and interesting governance conversations. I recommend creating an annual board calendar with these conversations scheduled. These could include budget planning conversations (are our staffing levels appropriate – will we need to figure out how to hire more next year or should we add or eliminate a program), strategic planning review sessions, possibly even committee training sessions, for example the finance committee could do an annual reminder about what happens at the committee level, what the reports that are given to the board mean and what philosophies they are using to manage money.
5) Work the locker room Sometimes, the Board Chair and/or the Executive Director needs to spend some time in the locker room. The intent of these locker room conversations may be to simply check in to make sure the board member is feeling heard, has any concerns or if the organization/board is living up to their end of the bargain in the mutually beneficial relationship department. When is the last time your board members have been asked if they think time at the board meeting is well spent, if meetings are run efficiently or if decisions are being thoroughly vetted? Asking the question is as valuable as the answer.
6) Define and Measure The fastest way to kill momentum is to fail to define and measure. We all agree that board members need to participate in fundraising and raise more money. But if we don’t take a moment to collectively define and share a vision for what “participate” means or what “more” means, we will never agree on what success looks like. One board member will donate a check and think they did their part, while another board member is organizing house parties, meeting with possible donors, writing thank you notes and selling raffle tickets. Both efforts may be fine, but if we never discussed the expectations and the shared definition –one may look across the board table and wonder why they are doing all the work while the other does nothing. Without a common language and shared definition, when will we know it’s time to celebrate a win?
Create an environment that breeds success – not failure – around your board table. Make sure everyone has the right tools, clear expectations and the training required. And most importantly, repeat frequently.