Engagement Strategies to Turn Nonprofit Board Members into Ambassadors for Your Cause

April 13, 2017 Tanya Fitzgerald

Engaged board members are instrumental advocates and ambassadors for your nonprofit organization. Identifying and securing them can be challenging, but once they join your mission, they become an invaluable resource. From the initial solicitation through the completion of their terms, your board members should feel valued, accomplished, and tasked.

Here are tips for board member engagement—from recruitment through retirement—to help you build lifelong ambassadors for your cause:

Recruiting New Board Members

Board candidates are usually identified by past and present members. If your board is large, establish a governance committee to spearhead this initiative. The natural progression of the recruitment process allows the candidate to interview your organization as you do the same. You never want anyone to feel obligated to accept a board seat, because only candidates willing to join will be true ambassadors of your cause. Once vetted by the governance committee, the prospect should meet with other members and leaders and tour the facility with key staff.

Have the board prospect meet with the Executive Director:

Before you present them to the entire board. Plan for the meeting to last around 30 minutes and include a review of the organization’s history, mission, and board structure/requirements on the agenda. During this meeting, the candidate should be comfortable asking questions and engaging in an informal discussion. At most, select a few key staff members to join the meeting. Ideally, a facility tour will take place immediately after and should highlight your mission and engage your prospect. Personalize the experience by customizing the tour to the candidate’s passions. For example, if the prospect has children and you are touring an aquarium, invite the family to join and provide a once-in-a-life-time experience. Demonstrating the impact of your organization will increase your odds of acceptance. Once the potential board member has met with leadership and understands the mission, have them meet with one or more past or present members. These board members will authenticate their experiences and confirm the board obligations and commitments required to be successful. Peer-to-peer conversations encourage honesty and validate a sense of security. Committing to this type of recruitment process will ensure a successful collaboration between new members, existing members, and staff.

Onboarding New Board Members

The on boarding process for new board members should be seamless. A detailed schedule that allows for certain modifications will make the candidate feel respected. The onboarding process should follow a similar outline for all board members, but should be modified for each person’s unique needs. Once the board has voted, the new member becomes an active participant immediately, even before attending their first meeting. This means that if something comes up, such as an emergency vote, the new member is expected to participate.

Prior to their first board meeting, each new board member should attend an orientation:

The length of the orientation will depend on what’s covered and the number of attendees. In most instances, an hour-long orientation will give the board member enough information, prepare them for community involvement, and allow for questions. The CEO, CFO, DOD, and any other staff that commonly interact with the nonprofit board should attend each orientation. Additionally, the presence of a governance committee member encourages a conversation-type setting and demonstrates commitment. Create a clear and concise agenda that includes briefing attendee(s) on challenges, accomplishments, current goals, and future plans. Prepare an informational binder for each board member and include relevant information, such as:

  • Mission and vision statements
  • Organization history
  • Schedule of board meetings
  • Previous and current year’s budgets
  • List of current board members and emeriti with contact information
  • Staff leadership with contact information
  • Board bylaws
  • Obtained accreditation(s)
  • Board committees (including descriptions and members)
  • Board expectations
  • Past board minutes
  • Strategic plan, master plan, and/or future goals

Building a Board Member Engagement Strategy

Board member interaction should be consistent, informative, and objective. Each ambassador has been selected for their ability and commitment to making a difference, and it’s your duty to provide them with the necessary resources. If staffing permits, identify a single person to serve as the primary point of contact, such as a board liaison or the Executive Director’s executive assistant. Board interaction will vary among different organizations, but you are guaranteed to have meaningful contact with them at board meetings, committee meetings, retreats, socials, and events.

Board meeting frequency:

The frequency of board meetings is at the discretion of each organization and reflects the organization’s needs and bylaws. Smaller boards may meet once a month, while larger ones tend to meet quarterly. Clearly communicate dates and distribute any necessary materials one week in advance. This will set the tone for productive working sessions, open discussion, and resolutions. Your goal is to make each meeting productive and ensure that members feel their time is being spent wisely. Reporting is impactful but not often the best use of time. You’ll find that board meetings with brief reporting and heavy discussion are the most productive.

Board meeting location and agenda:

Diversifying meeting locations and agenda styles can increase board efficiency. Board retreats are extremely successful and ideal for any size. An annual retreat offers a change of scenery, in-depth working sessions, and promotes camaraderie. The size of your organization will influence the retreat’s agenda. Large organizations might consider hosting a two-day retreat (half-day sessions) with a cocktail hour and dinner, while smaller organizations could host an afternoon retreat. Location is key, so choose a desirable setting and invite spouses/guests to the evening social. Incorporating family and friends demonstrates unity, increases attendance, and displays stewardship.

Board committees:

Nonprofit boards are divided into committees that focus on specific subject matters and departments. Board committees should have their own meeting schedule separate from board meetings. They should meet at least once prior to each board of directors meeting and should be prepared to report back about their challenges, goals, and progress. Each committee needs a chairperson and an assigned staff member to provide industry knowledge. For example, your advancement committee can be chaired by your largest fundraiser on the board and overseen by your director of development.

Board socials:

Socials are an ideal method to build relationships and encourage participation. Boards, especially large ones, can be intimidating, difficult to engage, and overwhelming. To break the ice, host a gathering with spouses and guests invited. This will create a relaxed atmosphere that encourages interaction. Sometimes it’s hard to justify socials in the budget, but be creative and host one that’s economical and effective. For example, throw a cocktail hour at a board member’s home immediately following a board meeting. This scenario relieves a large part of the financial strain and provides a low-key setting for networking, which is one reason why many choose to serve in the first place.

Board member stewardship:

Ongoing stewardship is imperative to keeping any board member engaged. As time progresses, get to know each board member and their families on a personal level. Staff members can also provide a customizable level of stewardship. Maintain a database with your board members’ birthdays, anniversaries, career achievements, and other important milestones. Pay attention to their lives outside of your organization and become well versed in their personal endeavors. Value the material they share with you and use it to build a stronger relationship.

Board members want to engage with all levels of staff and witness how their efforts are used. Remember, it’s easier to keep a donor than to acquire a new one, and this also applies to board members. Invite them to events that would interest them and their family. Strengthening your engagement process while updating them on initiatives will keep your organization top of mind. Make sure to introduce them to staff members they haven’t met before. This deepens their relationship with your organization and has the potential to increase their involvement level.

Staying Connected with Past Board Members

Retired and emeritus board members can be some of your strongest advocates in the community. Yes, they’ve completed their terms, but that doesn’t mean they no longer warrant your focus. Ongoing engagement of these community leaders is extremely important, but your attention level will likely vary from person to person. Current members must receive the most communication, consistent updates, access to sensitive information, and organizational happenings. Continue to engage emeriti and retired members, but in a different fashion.

Past board member stewardship:

Their impact level doesn’t decrease once a board member rotates off the board. Their time and commitment will dwindle, but their ambassador status still holds true. Many retired members welcome a certain level of staff communication, granting you access to their resources, connections, and relationships. A retired board member can be as impactful as a current member and should be valued within your organization. They will most likely move on to other boards, but they will allow you to use them when needed. Customize their stewardship level and engage them with ideas, committees, projects, and events. Show them you still want to connect, so they don’t forget about your mission.

Emeriti Engagement:

These members have completed their board service and upon retirement will retain their titles (with voting approval) in honor of their service and commitment. Not all retired members will receive this privilege as it should be reserved for ones that served with distinction and excellence. With emeritus status, their attendance is no longer required at board meetings to form quorum. They are not subject to the bylaw attendance policy, and they are not entitled to vote or hold an officer position. Emeriti will forever hold this title, and for that reason, you need to continue high-level engagement. Include emeriti in written notices and information provided to the board of directors and encourage them to attend the annual board of directors meeting and to continue their participation on a committee. Make sure you also include them in all major events, like your annual gala. Emeriti are your top-performing board members, and they will continue to show their affection for your mission if you honor them with respect and information.

Relationships and resources are some of the most important assets in running an effective operation. Keeping your ambassadors engaged will help your mission thrive. Board members can guide you on strategy, staffing, financing, legal issues, organizational design questions, and more. Allow their enthusiasm, wisdom, and experience to guide and strengthen your cause.  Their loyalty and passion will only increase over time, benefiting your efforts. Lastly, don’t forget to have fun with your board members and enjoy their community influence.

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