How to Build an Engaged Nonprofit Board of Directors

Brooke Richie-Babbage, host of The Nonprofit Mastermind Podcast, discusses building an engaged nonprofit board of directors.

A truly effective and high-impact nonprofit board of directors has its own special magic.

When we think about what makes a “good board” we often think of fundraising, or the mechanics of good governance. 

But the special magic of a truly effective board of directors is deeper and more expansive than just checking the boxes of raising money or having the right committees.

THE METRICS OF A HIGH-IMPACT NONPROFIT BOARD

Externally, truly connected and engaged board members are your organization’s fiercest cheerleaders and most vocal ambassadors.  

Internally, they can also be the Executive Director’s and staff’s most powerful co-strategists and thought partners.

At its core, truly effective board members understand their role,  feel connected to the organization and its work, and willingly and proactively take action.

 

What to avoid when building an engaged board  

So often, when we talk about how to build an “ideal” board, we focus on recruiting people who we think of as “the right” board members. Often this means some combination of three things:  

  • People with access to wealth, 
  • People with access to exciting networks, and/or 
  • People who “just really love what we do!”

The unspoken assumption is that just getting the right people in the room will magically translate into having a group of thought partners and ambassadors who will leverage their resources and energy for the betterment of the organization.

Focusing too much on a board member’s wealth or access doesn’t necessarily make board fundraising easier.

Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization, and for many organizations, that includes a responsibility to help raise money. But here’s the thing: Having access to resources does not mean that the board member will be willing to leverage those resources on behalf of the organization. 

Unless they are also willing or able to help fundraise, their wealth/ access to wealth is meaningless in the context of their role on the board.  In reality, engagement comes first.  A board member’s willingness to help bring resources into an organization typically grows out of a deeper sense of commitment and engagement. 

Inside the Board Engagement Bundle, you’ll find this resource dedicated to fundraising with the Board.

GET THE BOARD FUNDRAISING WORKBOOK

Focusing on the perceived size of a board member’s network doesn’t ensure more connections for the organization. 

Similarly to the first pitfall, the size, scope, or nature of a board member’s network only matters if they are willing to leverage that network on behalf of the organization.  In addition, access to networks alone doesn’t mean that the board member will be able or willing to perform their other governance duties.

Focusing only on mission alignment doesn’t ensure engagement.  

This one is tricky because mission alignment is absolutely critical to effective board membership. Every board member should feel a deep affinity for the organization’s mission. That affinity will lay the foundation for every aspect of their board engagement. 

That being said, mission alignment alone does not make someone an engaged or effective board member. A person can care about the mission but not have the time or inclination to invest in the other governance responsibilities incumbent on board members.

The key to building and sustaining meaningful board engagement is a strong culture.

CREATE THE MAGIC OF A HIGH-IMPACT NONPROFIT BOARD

The most highly committed and engaged boards have a board culture that encourages and supports commitment and engagement. 

Yes, who the board members are does matter. It’s definitely important to have people on your board whose skills and interests are aligned with your organization’s mission, work, and goals.  

However, significantly more important than who the members are is how they agree to show up and work together. In the end, it’s the norms and agreements that board members construct that will drive and sustain true engagement.

These are three strategies that you can use to build and maintain a board culture that supports commitment and meaningful engagement.

Engagement Strategy #1: Be clear about what active engagement means for your board.

Clarity is crucial. Board members should know and understand what is expected of them, what counts as “showing up,” and what true engagement means on your specific board. These things can differ from board to board, so naming and agreeing on concrete metrics of engagement is a critical part of building both a board structure and culture that support engagement.

There are five core metrics of engagement that I recommend your board consider.

These have been shown to lay a strong foundation for continued engagement. Engaged board members:  

  1. “Work” between board meetings. This means that they pick up the phone when the Executive Director calls, put in the time to respond to emails, and dedicate time and effort to supporting the organization and its work. 
  2. Attend meetings and are well-prepared when they show up. 
  3. Engage with the organization’s mission, through its programming, through outside research and learning about important related issues, or through direct work with the staff. This means that, when asked, they can go beyond just articulating the mission statement, and can really explain the reason the organization exists and why it matters. 
  4. Actively seek to learn, grow and build their skills as board members. They participate in – and even seek out opportunities for – governance training and skill building.
  5. Wade into the messiness of true governance and support the organization’s leadership. They care enough to ask tough questions, have the important conversations, and help solve real problems, even when it’s not easy.

Use the Board Engagement Cheatsheet inside the Board Engagement Bundle to flesh out engagement goals that the full board agrees upon and tracks. Consider adopting a regular board-wide practice of asking: Are we doing these things, do we have what we need from the staff to do these things?

Engagement Strategy #2: Make board members feel like insiders. Keep them in the loop.

Lack of information and connection to the work of the organization can sound the death knell for board engagement. Board members lead full lives outside of their commitment to the organization, so it can be difficult to maintain meaningful engagement when they may only connect to the organization for quarterly meetings and occasional programs. 

Help the organization stay top-of-mind for board members by creating and sharing regular board updates. I recommend creating and sharing a high-level bi-monthly or quarterly board update dashboard that highlights key financial and non-financial engagements and contributions. 

These updates should provide meaningful information about the organization and mission in a format that is easy to digest, brief, and high-level. Include no more than 5 topics – More than 5 can make the update feel clutters and defeat its primary purpose. 

Also consider including a few articles or media (podcasts, etc.) that illuminate your issue in ways that help board members understand its importance in the world, as well as a brief State of the Organization note from you (the ED) offering your intimate perspective on where the organization stands.

These updates are a quick and easy way to: 

  • Provide information to your board members that they are interested in receiving, 
  • Inspire and maintain a connection to your mission,
  • Educate about your issue and mission, especially for those board members who may not be issue experts, and 
  • Make board members feel like they are organization insiders – that they are knowledgeable enough about the organization to talk about its mission and work comfortably and confidently.

Don’t worry about including a massive email with the update. A dashboard can stand on its own. Including a lot of text can undermine its power. Instead, simply invite board members to reach out with responses or insights. 

I include a template to create your own board update dashboard inside the Board Engagement Bundle!

Engagement Strategy #3:  Build a strong culture.

A strong board culture is rooted in a certain kind of trust called Trust For Action. Trust for Action is a form of connection that is focused on a group’s ability to work together towards a common goal.  

Unlike how we typically think about trust, which is rooted in trust for liking, trust for action isn’t actually about liking people. Rather, it’s rooted in a belief in, and commitment to, a shared set of core values. 

This common set of beliefs allows people with different life experiences and perspectives to work together effectively despite their differences.  When people believe that they are working towards a shared end goal, and they believe that the other people on your team are just as dedicated to that end goal as they are, they are more committed to achieving the end goal. 

This is true on board as well. Ultimately when you focus explicitly on building a culture of trust for action, board members feel invested in taking – and are able to take – action together,  as a coherent and effective team.

Make time throughout your year (and at least once each year) to discuss these four questions, which outline the dimensions of trust for action: 

  • Question One: Are we all committed to the same end goal? Are we here for a reason that I care deeply about? This is where clarity about the mission is critical.  When the north star is fuzzy, and the strategic clarity – the priorities and the organization’s goals – are unclear, engagement will start to wane. 
  • Question Two:  How much can I count on other people to stay committed to the end goal? Can you be counted on to follow through on your commitments? This is where clarity about the expectations is critical.  You’ll lose engagement if people don’t know what they are being asked to do, what they’re being expected to do keeps shifting; and/or hey look around and see that the other people on the board aren’t following through. 
  • Question Three: Do we have a set of shared values that I can turn to?  For example, if I truly believe that we have a shared value around making sure that the organization is financially healthy, then I will trust that the actions you take are in service of that, whether I agree with the actions or not.    This makes wading into the messy and sometimes uncomfortable zone of tough conversations, decision-making, financials, etc. easier, thereby reducing barriers to – or friction around – engagement.  
  • Question Four: Am I able to bring value to this endeavor?  A belief in one’s own value on the team is a critical part of trust for action.  This is where working individually with board members to make sure that they have a meaningful way to be involved, that their skills and interests are actually in alignment with the needs and strategic priorities of the organization, and that their contributions are recognized and celebrated, is critical.

GET THE TOOLKIT FOR BUILDING TRUST FOR ACTION

Ultimately, the magic of your board lies in their commitment to, and engagement with, your mission and your work. By focusing on building a culture of engagement you can cultivate and sustain that magic throughout the year.