The Case of the Disengaged Board

Hi, I’m Joan Garry, and I’m here answering questions that board and staff leaders of nonprofits ask me, everything from occasionally to all the time.

Here’s a big one. I think of these as kind of like cases, like I’m Nancy Drew. Today we tackle the case of the disengaged board.

Are you hungry for a board that’s more engaged? I bet you are. So here’s three practical ideas and a bonus suggestion. Whether you’re the frustrated Board Chair that feels like you’re knocking and nobody’s home, or the frustrated Executive Director who feels like every request is met with crickets.

  1. Remember that no board is monolithic, so find your stars and bring them together in an alliance. Take your list of board members, divide them ones, twos, and threes. Your ones are your rock stars. Find one or two of them. It doesn’t take much. Bring them together, make them feel like a million bucks, and engage them in the process of working with you to tip the board in the direction you want to go.
  2. Make board meetings count. They are your best opportunity to create first-rate ambassadors. You want to do several things. You want to enrich them, something that gives them context about the sector or why the work matters. You want to engage them. Ask them legitimately and authentically for their advice, ideas, and suggestions.
  3. Keep them informed enough so that they can share accomplishments of the organization with the people they encounter. If you can enrich, inform, and engage you can ignite your board members to be engaged ambassadors for your work.
  4. Keep things alive between board meetings, and by this I do not mean nag them to sell tickets to the next event. You can nag them, but it has to be mixed up with some enrichment, a victory, a story they can tell, a mission moment some people call it. You’ve got to give them. You’ve got to feed them between board meetings if you want them at the next cocktail party to say, “Hey, you know, my job is great but boy am I loving board service. Let me tell you about something recently that happened at XYZ org.” That’s how it works.

Now, here’s the bonus. At your next board meeting try something.

Ask your Executive Director, maybe it’s an executive session with just the ED and the board, ask your Executive Director to offer his or her thinking about what he or she needs from the board in order to be successful.

Ask her to be specific and flip chart it, then turn the tables. Ask your board, “What does the board need from the Executive Director and the staff in order to be successful?” Flip chart that, too.

Take those two flip charts and make that the primary central focus of the next agenda for your ED, Board Chair check in.

How do those things come together in a way in which the ED gets what is needed from the board and the board gets what it needs to be successful, because you as copilots of this twin engine jet that is your nonprofit have to really make those engines work in sync. I think an exercise like that could be really, really valuable.

If this was helpful to you, join us in two places. One, on Facebook, Thriving Nonprofit with Joan Garry. Join us any time. There are almost 11,000 folks in there who find the conversation useful and valuable, and you can always subscribe to my blog, weekly pieces of advice just like this at joangarry.com.

See you next time.