Author: Brooke Richie-Babbage
At its best, an engaged board is a group of people who have raised their hands and said: I care so deeply about this mission, that I want to bring my skills, talents, resources, and connections to bear to help make it a reality.
Externally, truly connected and engaged board members are your organization’s fiercest cheerleaders and most vocal ambassadors. Internally, they can also be the Executive Director’s and staff’s most powerful co-strategists and thought partners.
When we think about what makes a “good board” we often think of fundraising, or the mechanics of good governance. But the special magic of a truly effective board membership is deeper and more expansive than just checking the boxes of raising money or having the right committees.
At its core, truly effective board members understand their role, feel connected to the organization and its work, and willingly and proactively take action.
So often, when we talk about how to build an “ideal” board, we focus on recruiting people who we think of as “the right” board members. Of this means some combination of 3 things: people with access to wealth, people with access to exciting networks, and/or people who “just really love what we do!” The unspoken assumption is that just getting the right people in the room will magically translate into having a group of thought partners and ambassadors who will leverage their resources and energy for the betterment of the organization.
The problem with this approach is that placing too much emphasis on the board members themselves – i.e., who they are and the attributes believed to make them “good” board members – can be a distraction from the true magic. True magic on a board comes from genuine, meaningful and sustained engagement. Period.
There are three specific pitfalls to avoid when thinking about how to create the magic of true engagement on your board:
Pitfall #1: Focusing too much on a board member’s wealth or access to wealth.
Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization, and for many organizations, that includes a responsibility to help raise money. But here’s the thing: Having access to resources does not mean that the board member will be willing to leverage those resources on behalf of the organization. Unless they are also willing or able to help fundraise, their wealth/ access to wealth is meaningless in the context of their role on the board. In reality, engagement comes first. A board member’s willingness to help bring resources into an organization typically grows out of a deeper sense of commitment and engagement.
Quick tip: When you find that these people are not a great fit for your board, consider cultivating them as major donors and advisors to the organization.
Pitfall #2: Focusing on the perceived size of a board member’s network.
Similarly to the first pitfall, the size, scope, or nature of a board member’s network only matters if they are willing to leverage that network on behalf of the organization. In addition, access to networks alone doesn’t mean that the board member will be able or willing to perform their other governance duties.
Quick tip: When you find that these people are not a great fit for your board, consider engaging people with extensive networks as ambassadors or strategic advisors.
Pitfall #3: Focusing only on mission alignment.
This one is tricky because mission alignment is absolutely critical to effective board membership. Every board member should feel a deep affinity for the organization’s mission. That affinity will lay the foundation for every aspect of their board engagement. That being said, mission alignment alone does not make someone an engaged or effective board member. A person can care about the mission but not have the time or inclination to invest in the other governance responsibilities incumbent on board members.
Quick tip: Consider people who have deep mission alignment but not the time or inclination for governance as strategic advisors, or simply deeply invested donors, to the organization.
The key is to build a structure and culture that encourage and support true engagement.
The fact is that the most highly committed and engaged boards have a board culture that encourages and supports commitment and engagement. Who the board members are does matter: It’s definitely important to have people on your board whose skills and interests are aligned with your organization’s mission, work, and goals.
Significantly more important than who the members are, however, is how they agree to show up and work together. In the end, it’s the norms and agreements that board members construct that will drive and sustain true engagement.
These are three strategies that you can use to build and maintain a board culture that supports commitment and meaningful engagement.
Engagement Strategy #1: Be clear about what active engagement means for your board.
Clarity is crucial. Board members should know and understand what is expected of them, what counts as “showing up,” and what true engagement means on your specific board. These things can differ from board to board, so naming and agreeing on concrete metrics of engagement is a critical part of building both a board structure and culture that support engagement.
There are five core metrics of engagement that I recommend your board consider. These have been shown to lay a strong foundation for continued engagement. Engaged board members:
Quick tip: Use this Board Metrics Cheatsheet to flesh out engagement goals that the full board agrees upon and tracks. Consider adopting a regular board-wide practice of asking: Are we doing these things, do we have what we need from the staff to do these things?
Engagement Strategy #2: Make board members feel like insiders. Keep them in the loop.
Lack of information and connection to the work of the organization can sound the death knell for board engagement. Board members lead full lives outside of their commitment to the organization, so it can be difficult to maintain meaningful engagement when they may only connect to the organization for quarterly meetings and occasional programs.
Help the organization stay top-of-mind for board members by creating and sharing regular board updates. I recommend creating and sharing a high-level bi-monthly or quarterly board update dashboard that highlights key financial and non-financial engagements and contributions. These updates should provide meaningful information about the organization and mission in a format that is easy to digest, brief, and high-level. Include no more than 5 topics; More than 5 can make the update feel clutters and defeat its primary purpose. Also consider including a few articles or media (podcasts, etc.) that illuminate your issue in ways that help board members understand its importance in the world, as well as a brief State of the Organization note from you (the ED) offering your intimate perspective on where the organization stands.
These updates are a quick and easy way to:
Don’t worry about including a massive email with the update. A dashboard can stand on its own. Including a lot of text can undermine its power. Instead, simply invite board members to reach out with responses or insights.
Quick tip: Use this template to create your own board update dashboard! To identify the core topics for the board updates, include a discussion in one of your board meetings and ask board members: What are 3 – 5 types of information you’d like to receive to help you feel more plugged into our mission and work throughout the year? What about our issue, mission and/or work do you understand the least? What feels particularly opaque? What about our issue, mission and/or is most exciting to you?
Engagement Strategy #3: Build a strong culture.
A strong board culture is rooted in a certain kind of trust called Trust For Action.
Trust for Action is a form of connection that is focused on a group’s ability to work together towards a common goal. Unlike how we typically think about trust, which is rooted in trust for liking, trust for action isn’t actually about liking people. Rather, it’s rooted in a belief in, and commitment to, a shared set of core values. This common set of beliefs allows people with different life experiences and perspectives to work together effectively despite their differences. When people believe that they are working towards a shared end goal, and they believe that the other people on your team are just as dedicated to that end goal as they are, they are more committed to achieving the end goal.
This is true on board as well. Ultimately when you focus explicitly on building a culture of trust for action, board members feel invested in taking – and are able to take – action together, as a coherent and effective team.
Make time throughout your year (and at least once each year) to discuss these four questions, which outline the dimensions of trust for action:
Ultimately, the magic of your board lies in their commitment to, and engagement with, your mission and your work. By focusing on building a culture of engagement you can cultivate and sustain that magic throughout the year.