I recently found myself hesitating when a community organization I’m involved with asked for my support as a volunteer board member.

I recently found myself hesitating when a community organization I’m involved with asked for my support as a volunteer board member.

Instead of responding positively, I caught myself thinking, “What have you done for me lately?” It made me uncomfortable, and as I reflected on my extensive experience with non-profit boards, I realized that this feeling is not uncommon.

Without delving into the details of my emotions—guilt, resentment, shame, and self-blame—what became evident is that non-profit organizations need to focus on key aspects to enhance and sustain board member engagement.

Here are four crucial principles:

Get the basics right

Most non-profit Board members are volunteers. They are giving time and energy and in return they have an expectation that their time will be respected. Call it “good Board hygiene” call it “good Board governance”—I call it “Get the Basics Right” like starting and ending meetings on time; sending out agendas and materials in advance; and making it as easy as possible to access materials. (Quick plug here for many new affordable tools on the market that help with document share, signatures, and managing rights.) Getting the basics right is one of the first signals to a Board member that you value them and their time.

Create clarity and alignment

Creating alignment and clarity begins during the prospecting and recruitment process. This includes exploring mutual alignment of purpose and values between organizations and prospective Board members. It also includes clearly conveying rules of engagement and expectations. Misalignment at this stage can lead to heart ache later.

This of course assumes organizations are clear on their purpose and values and how they manifest in strategy and goals. Non-profits should have an established process to review and refresh strategy and goals on a regular basis. Without this, Board members may find themselves asking, “What am I doing here?” – a close cousin to “What have you done for me lately?”

One non-profit I serve created a standing “Mission Moment” during which a client of the organization meets with the Board to discuss the impact of the organization. It creates a strong and consistent line of sight to the mission and allows Board members to think beyond perfunctory governance tasks and remain close to the impact of the organization.

The first two principles are table stakes. Most non-profit organizations not only do these, but they do them well. Those that aren’t usually have more pressing existential challenges like making payroll or finding a stable space to operate. These next two principles provide for creativity and latitude and are often what differentiates organizations with highly-engaged Board members from the pack.

Empower Board Members

Empowering Board members allows them to bring the fullness of their gifts to the table.
When Board members volunteer their personal time, one of the last things they want is to feel managed, restricted, or constrained. An empowerment culture starts at the top and is bolstered by an inclusive environment that values transparency and uses trusted delegation to get things done. Organizations should create two way communication streams and effective decision-making processes between committees and board members that extends beyond traditional governance mechanics. Ensure that Committee chairs and at-large Board members have authority to act in the best interest of the organization by removing unnecessary bureaucracy. Not everything requires a formal governance act.

Give back to the givers

This is when organizations serve their servant leaders. Beyond the intrinsic value of “giving back” there are often explicit and tacit reasons why Board members join an organization. They might be looking for professional development opportunities or a chance to network beyond their day-to-day industry. Organizations need to be creative in finding ways to meet these expectations.

In our work with clients at Ad Lucem, we often create inclusive planning summits that include Board members, staff, and community members. We recently had a Board member pull us aside and admit they had never met the staff before and that they “felt more connected than ever” to how their work contributed to the organization’s mission.

By focusing on these principles, non-profit organizations can foster greater board engagement, build loyalty, and improve retention. It’s a combination of respecting their time, maintaining alignment, empowering them, and acknowledging their contributions that creates a positive and engaging environment, ultimately avoiding the question, “What have you done for me lately?”

Joel Farran, MS

Joel Farran, MS

Senior Strategy, Communications, Health Care, and Community Investment Advisor

Prior to joining Ad Lucem Group, Joel’s 20+ year career in health care, community engagement, and board development work has included the roles of: Chief Brand Officer & Senior Vice President; Senior Vice President, Strategy and Corporate Relations; and Vice President, Chief of Staff to the CEO at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, & Texas. Joel has led numerous significant corporate planning, merger & acquisition execution and integration activities and community investment initiatives. He specializes in advising executives on making high-impact moves and currently serves numerous community and not for profit organizations in various roles in the Chicago-area. Joel holds a BS in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a MS in Health Systems Management from Rush University, Chicago. In his spare time, Joel is a master soccer dad and novice, unknown screenwriter.

Learn more about Joel here.

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