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  • Writer's pictureDebra A. Gill

Keeping the Board in the Game

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

No Timeouts Remaining.

March Madness and spring training are upon us. So too are ongoing efforts to make certain that our board members remain engaged with our missions. Often there is a tendency to sit on the sidelines and wonder why our board members are lacking energy, slow to step up to the plate, and taking their eye off the ball.

As one of my son’s baseball coaches used to say, “lose the plow!” It’s time to figure out what’s holding our board members back and find ways to propel them forward in support of our organizational goals.

The first step is to make sure that we are recruiting the right players. In the human resources space, this is known as a realistic job preview. Make sure that each nominee knows what the expectations are and explore their expectations of us. Having in-depth conversations with candidates, before they are elected, mitigates problems down the line.

This is not an opportunity to sell our organizations, but rather a time to sit back and listen. Be curious and inquire why prospective board members are interested in serving. Seek clarity on their connection to the mission. Determine if this is a résumé builder, a favor for a friend, or a true commitment to making an impact.

  • What compels you about our mission?

  • What do you perceive your role on the board to be?

  • What are your expectations of the organization, leadership, and other board members?

  • What boards have you served on previously and what was your experience?

  • What would fellow board members with those organizations say about your impact?

  • What is your comfort level engaging in philanthropy (the heart of this conversation)?

Once the votes are cast, the onboarding begins. A comprehensive orientation session provides detailed information about the organization, financials, fiduciary oversight, governance, structure, mission, vision, values and importantly - the case for support and philanthropic priorities. A provided resource binder or digital solution includes bylaws, articles of incorporation, board and staff contact lists, organizational chart, recent 990 and/or audit, current budget, and other relevant information. This is the bible a board member will use to provide oversight during their tenure. Appropriate documents need to be signed at this time including a volunteer job description (essential), conflict of interest statement, and confidentiality agreement – all to be renewed annually.

Beyond achieving excellence in recruiting and onboarding, it is crucial to maintain fitness with training for board members. This involves highly engaging agendas, meaningful interaction, accountability, and a clear sense of purpose. Like a playbook that drives athletic teams, establishing creative and customized practices for board meetings will increase involvement.

  • Start meetings with a “mission moment,” asking board members to share something they heard, did, or learned that is mission related since the last board meeting.

  • Consider TEO sessions, where board members take turns teaching each other about something they learned about the organization.

  • Invite board members, donors, or beneficiaries to share their personal testimony.

  • Provide regular education about various programs, services, or outcomes.

  • Invite sponsors to attend and make a brief presentation.

  • Tour, tour, tour – every board member should be familiar with buildings and grounds.

When in doubt, ask participants what they would like to accomplish during the meetings. Consent agendas may be helpful time management tools. Prepared board members will thoroughly read materials prior to each meeting so there is no need to report on written information but rather create space to respond to questions that surface as a result of what is provided. Conducting and sharing board self-assessments is a best practice as is an annual deep dive retreat to establish goals, objectives, and strategies that can be discussed at meetings.

Often, it’s the sideline (outside of board meetings) interactions that are the most productive. Ongoing dialogue with board members about their role on the board, seeking input, and learning from their observations increases connection, and impacts performance. Effective executive leaders meet one-on-one with board members for a discovery conversation at least once a year. Key questions might include:

  • Over the past year, what gave you the greatest sense of satisfaction?

  • What opportunities are we missing?

  • What are your personal goals as a board member over the next year?

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times. “We have a fantastic board, very committed, and engaged – they just don’t like fund raising.” My question is, have they been properly coached? Do they understand that this is an opportunity to connect their friends, family, co-workers, and others in supporting a mission that may give them great satisfaction?

A Triple A philanthropic board member is comfortable serving as an ambassador, an advocate, and an asker at any given time and proudly invites others into the conversation. In fact, board members for high performing organizations maintain their own small portfolio of donors whom they personally nurture, in collaboration with staff.

Finally, one cannot ask without giving. It is essential to maintain 100% philanthropic support from the board, seeking significant gifts commensurate with capacity on an annual basis. While their time is valuable, nothing speaks louder to a community of donors than undivided charitable support from volunteer leadership.

At the end of the day, keeping board members in the game comes down to creating a culture of success. With the right players, proper training, a strong play book, effective coaching, and a winning attitude, you’re sure to go the distance – no time outs required.

Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their missions.

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