A Step-by-Step Recipe For Meaningful Board Engagement

by Joan Garry

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Are your board meetings a bit like “show and tell”. Or maybe more like a class presentation?

If yes, you’re not alone. Lots of executive directors approach board meetings this way.

Why? They want to show their board members that they are “on it,” that things are going great and they don’t have to worry.

The problem with this is the info flows only one way. While EDs want board members to be interested, inviting questions can feel risky. Will they ask a really tough question? Do they know just enough to go down some rabbit hole that eats time on the clock?

Another factor at play – Type A leaders are accustomed to getting A’s on their book reports. Imagine for a moment an A student’s book report that includes a section inviting the class to have a discussion to sort through the student’s confusion about a choice Tom Sawyer made?

Uh no.

This attitude leads to ‘rubber stamping’ board members. They’re disengaged, feel no sense of ownership of the strategic direction, and feel underutilized (unless they know wealthy people). Board engagement plummets further.

And voila. Great board members magically just become too busy and resign.

Interestingly, staff leaders don’t consider the underlying issue. Here’s what staff leaders tell me:

“My board doesn’t know enough. I can’t count on them to offer really helpful strategic thinking.”

“My team really understands the issues and the board just needs to trust us.”

It’s time for Executive Directors to think differently and for board chairs to challenge staff leaders to think differently.

And I believe I can help.

First, let’s look at how board members can become more valuable in meaningful discussions. Then, I’ll offer you a bit of a recipe on how to improve board engagement in a way that makes the value of board member input clear.


  1. Believe and recruit like you believe
  2. Use my formula
  3. Plan board meetings far in advance
  4. Educate and enrich board members about the work and the broader sector
  5. Enrich board members about the sector
  6. Remember that it is PART OF THEIR JOB


  • Identify a strategic issue and commit to board engagement
    It could be the start of your strategic planning process. Perhaps you have been asked to collaborate with a colleague organization and you want to do it well. Maybe your organization was the subject of a negative article in the press. Or let’s say you are struggling to land on the best way to measure program success.
  • Build credibility about your due diligence
    Begin with a presentation to the board about the problem, the strategy you are working to develop, and the existential knot you are working to untangle. 

    Wait, Joan, you said NO PRESENTATIONS! Yup, I did — so a friendly amendment here: You have to set the stage so they know the background and that they will have sufficient information about where you are at.

    Share with them the process you have gone through, folks you have sought out. Build credibility that you have done your due diligence and have reached a certain point where you are clear about the solution, the strategy, and the big decision (this avoids board members second-guessing your process). 
  • Target the input you need  
    Create some focus. Great conversation for the board chair and ED to have in planning the meeting. Create discussion prompts and focus on more specific things you are struggling with — not weedy things — but 3-4 core questions you are trying to answer.
  • Be transparent about how the input will be used   
    It has to be more than, “This was a great conversation and your input was really valuable.” Acknowledge just how insightful the board was and that the conversation gave you a lot to think about. And you promise to circle back to explain how this input shaped the decision you’ll be bringing forward.
  • Circle back
    This ball might be the one most often dropped. Don’t ask me my opinion and then not tell me what decision you reached, or honor the input I had. And I need to know that even if you didn’t take my advice, it made for a richer conversation — that it was considered and ultimately rejected because of X, Y, or Z.   

    It’s smart and respectful. And will give board members a sense of value that will lead to greater and deeper engagement on the issues that matter.


  • Post-meeting ‘crickets’ will disappear.
    You will ignite your board’s passion and get more emails after this meeting than any other. “That was a great discussion”  or “Thanks for engaging us in that discussion — I hope you feel we added value”.
  • Someone will ask you to consider something you had not thought of.
    Your decision making will be enriched.
  • You will learn more about your board members (or affirm what you presumed).
    A board member will surprise you with a valuable comment that stems from their expertise or lived experience, and you will feel grateful that that board member is on YOUR board. Conversely, the board member who typically generates wacky ideas will not disappoint you.
  • Your board chair will feel pretty darned good about being chair.
    Your board chair will get an email or two and feel more positive and more motivated to be an effective leader.
  • You will notice gaps.
    The conversation will be valuable and yet… you will have at least one “if only” moment (“If only we had someone at the table who…”). Take note of these moments so you will know who else is needed at the table when it’s time to recruit new board members. (Click here to learn more about hunting for great board members.)


  • Email your board members THE NEXT DAY to thank them for their participation.
  • Email your board chair THE NEXT DAY to thank them for designing such an effective engagement opportunity at the board meeting.
  • Email the chair of the Nominating Committee THE NEXT DAY and copy your board chair. Talk about what a great group of board members you have and then tee up a conversation about the gap(s) you may have identified. Join the next committee meeting and talk through how much richer the conversation might have been had we had folks with X and Y expertise or lived experience at the table. Advocate that the committee prioritize those gaps in recruiting.


Change your mindset. Your board may in fact be disengaged. Attendance may be low. You may get crickets to your emails.

The answer is not to fire them, give up on them, or assume they have no value.

The answer is to assume they love your organization, care deeply about the mission, and want to contribute meaningfully.

If you come to that conclusion, you and your board chair will realize that if you change how you approach the issue and begin to assume that your team of board members has something meaningful to contribute, they will deliver for you.

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