The exceptional board member and a phenomenal nonprofit have one essential thing in common. Both do their greatest work when individuals enjoy the experience of being board members.
Fulfillment is necessary for producing exceptional board members. Joy matters. And joy is not some abstract ideal. It can happen through the deliberate removal of obstructions and pain points for board members. The difference between attracting an average board member and an exceptional board member stems from the board member experience.
A perennial, yet often unspoken, question arises for the healthy nonprofit: How do you plan for board member succession? The board needs to regularly attract new energy from business and community leaders. There are many potential board members, but few who can be real leaders in a given nonprofit. Ideally, a board fills itself with these impressive people, forming a self-inspiring community of members. How do you attract and engage such exceptional people? What is the exceptional individual seeking?
After all, being a member of a nonprofit board doesn’t pay and it takes time. It is volunteer work and social responsibility, on top of the individual’s already busy life. Boards must pay a lot of attention to the board member experience to get ideal board member recruits.
Here are some key requirements for facilitating a great board experience that will attract board members that other nonprofits will covet.
Equip Board Members to Do Their Work
A well-equipped board enables its members to focus on their best work. Addressing the board member’s pain points can allow the individual to stay motivated and constantly engaged. The exceptional board member expects the nonprofit to remove obstacles and nurture joy in the mission.
To keep the spark of joy alive in board members, ask whether your nonprofit models an unflagging commitment to equip board members to do their work.
The above isn’t just a suite of platitudes. What nonprofit flourishes without addressing common inefficiencies? The average board remains in a state of overload. Outstanding prospective board members, sensing a rescue mission before them, look to a more promising outlet. Be sure to provide the information, training, updates, and data your board members need.
Keep an Eye on Engagement
In contrast to the exceptional board member (who naturally seeks the exceptional board), the average member connects with a nonprofit’s mission in a general sense only. The average board member might lack familiarity with the day-to-day work, plans, tensions, and successes of the organization.
Most board members do not transcend that general connection. Some remain LinkedIn board members, for whom the nonprofit is a bio line. They’re kept on for the prestige their names lend to the group. Many never arrive at a deep, personal connection with the nonprofit and its mission.
Exceptional board members may lend prestige, and they are proud to list their board positions in their bios, but they are also activists. They’re keen on fundraising. They find time for volunteering. And they’re constantly making connections for the organization. Exceptional board members stay engaged with the board meeting process and attract other passionate board candidates.
Meeting Preparation is Crucial
There is sometimes a temptation to not come into a meeting completely prepared. Someone else is leading the meeting, so it’s okay to slide now and then. Understandable, right? That’s often the most efficient mindset for the busy individual.
But, alas, that also means spending the nonprofit’s time getting board members and attendees on the same page. In our Boardable survey, 42% of nonprofit board members expressed the wish that fellow members could show up prepared for meetings.
This is a matter of collegiality. It is also a factor the nonprofit can actively influence. Real-time updates between meetings go a long way toward keeping the board focused on the necessary preparations. Then, as the meeting approaches on everyone’s calendar, people already have a sense of what the discussion will entail. More importantly, they’ve remembered to do the tasks they accepted last time.
Encourage Attendance Thoughtfully
Attending the board meeting itself, of course, is a baseline for an engaged member. There are several ways a board can encourage attendance:
● A blend of virtual and in-person meetings can be the optimal way to keep everyone present.
● Schedule a years’ worth of board meetings in advance, if possible, to support the board members’ planning efforts.
● A link to a virtual, backup meeting space can save the day.
● Make attendance requirements crystal clear during board member orientation.
If you start to notice your board meeting attendance is suffering, it is time to examine why. Take an anonymous poll of board members about what they’d like to do differently in meetings. It could be that you are somehow inadvertently making meeting attendance a chore. Maybe meetings are too long, too boring, too unproductive. Finding out what board members want to improve about them will not only improve your attendance, it will also help with recruiting. If potential board members attend a meeting before accepting membership, you want to show them meetings that they will look forward to and value.
Task Follow-Through Improves the Board Member Experience
This one is a little less obvious, but it is crucial to an enjoyable and rewarding board member experience. If the whole board can shine in follow-through, a board member can forget about having to pick up after forgetful colleagues, and simply enjoy the work. Today’s technology makes follow-through support happen. All board communication and action items can flow through an automated system, assisting the board by keeping its people organized – together. Everybody has all the important content at their fingertips, organized in a user-friendly format.
Given the capabilities of software and cloud computing, board members can now enjoy access to all the same documents, minutes, contacts, tasks, and checklists. Removing obstacles of inefficiency and poor communication will earn your board a reputation for being productive and impactful. That goes a long way toward attracting the kind of board members you want.
Volunteering is a Symptom of Great Engagement
All of these tools are well worth exploring for nonprofits that must appeal to their board members to volunteer for program activities. Rolled-up sleeves represent passion. And volunteering creates a connection with the nonprofit that mere meeting attendance usually can’t.
Make volunteering easy and enjoyable for your board members. First and foremost, simply make sure they know when events are happening. A shared calendar with programming events, as well as networking and development activities, is a great way to be certain everyone knows what’s happening and when.
New board members may enjoy a buddy system with more seasoned board members. Suggest they pair up during a meeting and pick one event a month (or whatever seems appropriate) to volunteer together. Not only have you built in some accountability, it will simply be more fun for them to volunteer with a colleague along. Be creative in how you facilitate volunteering.
Happy Board Members Are Natural Advocates
Keep advocacy on the board members’ minds. Reward it. Joy in the work includes enthusiasm for sharing the value of the nonprofit’s activities. Encourage the board to use the content your nonprofit has already created to share with their networks and the public.
One practical idea that’s proven quite helpful is special recognition for advocacy. At each meeting, someone should be recognized for exceptional efforts, as reflected in social media posts, emails to prospective contributors, personal contributions, and so forth. Compare this with the way gardens flourish in a condo community when the online newsletter publishes kudos for the top gardeners and photos of the best gardens. Use this principle to encourage your board members to be advocates, as well as fundraisers. With an environment of friendly competition, you will create a board culture of fun and results that new candidates will want to be a part of.
Fundraising is a Natural Result of Happy Board Members
Typical among board members surveyed by Boardable is the sense that their fellow members could demonstrate stronger engagement in seeking corporate support, by tapping into their networks and engaging their employers. Most nonprofits have a system for bringing in their board members’ financial contributions. You can make this even easier by providing periodic training on how to talk about your value proposition to sponsors. When prospective board members see how willing the board is to fundraise, they will want to be part of the success.
Although personal financial contributions are not always obligatory, the exceptional board member, the joyful board member, wants the nonprofit to flourish and chooses it for a hefty segment of yearly individual giving. Set expectations for this early in orientation. This doesn’t mean you have to ask for a dollar amount, but make it clear that the nonprofit should be a top priority in your new board members’ giving.
Again, thanks and recognition matter. When board members are recognized for their financial contributions, they feel needed, happier about giving, and more likely to be motivated to contribute more resources, time, and activism to the cause. Be sure to regularly show board members what their fundraising is accomplishing. Each meeting could include an update like, “We raised $500 in our last email campaign, and that provided backpacks for 25 children. Great job, everyone!”
Perhaps Hank Rosso, founder of the Fund Raising School which later became part of the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, said it best: “Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”
A Happy Board is Self-Perpetuating
The ideal board member has a strong sense of purpose. It’s a charitable purpose – the desire to give back – but it’s more. For the exceptional board member, performing nonprofit work is meaningful and nourishing. By removing the pain points of board membership and enhancing the positive parts of the experience, you will not only strengthen your board, you’ll attract the best board member candidates in the future.
Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a software provider whose online portal centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a nonprofit board of directors. Founded in 2017 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way Central Indiana and ProAct. https://boardable.com
This article will be printed in Issue #14 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you don’t miss it and other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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