I’ve been looking around lately and there seem to be tons of blog posts, articles, and bits of advice on how to decide on a quantity of board members and who to choose, but there isn't a wealth of information on just what to do with board members once they jump aboard. Technically volunteers, board members need to be engaged or their interests will dwindle and their dedication diminish.
By now (hopefully) your charity has determined the best candidates based on their dedication to the mission of the organization, the organization, professional experience, and fundraising and networking abilities. Board members should always bring a skillset to the table that will benefit your organization, otherwise you are lugging around dead weight. Below are some of my ideas on how to best utilize a board of directors while maintaining their interest and momentum.
Fundraising. Generating funds is an excellent role for boards containing well-networked professionals with personal wealth and business connections, but it should never be the only purpose of a charity’s board. A nonprofit I worked for in the past attempted this, and when I ran into a board member in the produce section of the grocery store, she boldly yelled, “I need to find a new charity. They only are interested in my rolodex,” with enough anger I wanted to hide behind the banana stand. When serving on the board for a nonprofit, there is some understanding of a fundraising expectation, but that shouldn’t be the only responsibility or role that board members play. Whatever the fundraising expectation may be, make sure it is clearly articulated prior to the board member signing on. Some members will write the check for the minimum expectation on the spot, while others may not have the personal wealth and will require time to solicit donations, so make sure you have timelines and deadlines in place.
Mentorship. Board members provide great mentorship and networking opportunities for younger volunteers and interns who participate within your organization. The ability to meet, shadow, and potentially collaborate with established professionals may provide your organization a competitive advantage when recruiting volunteers, interns, and fellows, so much so they may negate the need to compensate interns. These types of professional mentorship opportunities recognize the accomplishments of the board members and allow members to share their expertise in a way that keeps them linked to your cause while stroking their ego a bit.
Find their Interest. Whether event planning, providing hands on services, or public speaking for your organization, board members are excellent ambassadors for your charity. Tailoring their responsibilities to their interests and skills will keep them engaged on a consistent basis. This can also serve as a cost-saving tool, as board members are more likely to contribute out of pocket for the small details that your budget couldn’t afford and provide for classier affairs. Avoid tossing board members onto random committees; have them list their top 3 skills on an index card and make committee or responsibility assignments from there. Not only does this allow you the opportunity to learn more about how the board members perceive themselves, but you can tailor their involvement to their interests and ultimately the best interests of the nonprofit.
Keep the Meetings to a Minimum. Board meetings are a necessary evil, but at the same time drawing things out for hours at a time will bore them, and no one wants to feel as if they are wasting their time. Don’t schedule meetings during the workday unless absolutely necessary – taking business professionals away from their day jobs represents a conflict of interest and makes it seem as if their work for you is more important than their work for themselves. Recognize if there needs to be a timing adjustment for traffic, meals, etc. Serving some kind of refreshments also keeps them energized when looking through that budget proposal. Avoid parliamentary procedure if at all possible, the more informal the meeting seems, the more likely to generate open dialogue.
Break it Up. Many nonprofits, especially major charities like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the American Red Cross, etc. are creating young professionals groups. By providing networking opportunities and the chance to associate with people of their own age demographic and have a mix of board responsibilities and fun social events. These can also serve as fundraising opportunities: Happy Hours, Bowling Tournaments, Pay to Attend Dinners, Charity Movie Night, and many others provide the some board perks, some volunteer experience, and some fun. This also provides a sense of inclusion – people don’t feel as if they have to be an established professional or have accumulated wealth to have a stake in the organization. When volunteers/board members feel like they have a voice, it is easier for them to get excited about the cause.
Keep them in the Loop. Many board members are professionally minded and well educated individuals, but are they well versed in nonprofit 101? Probably not. Small trainings at board meetings and presentations can help keep the board up to date, whether educating about the financial situation of the organization, staff changes, or more specific items relating to the role of the committee they chair, or even introducing them to clients or beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s services. No one is too old to learn something new.
Still looking for more ideas on how to manage and/or create a board? Boardsource is a great online tool for selecting board members, determining their governance, and how to best collaborate with them.