The need to increase board engagement is a refrain we hear time and time again from chief executives and board members.
If the goal is to increase engagement, then part of the solution must be to define what it means and determine current state so that you have a benchmark upon which to measure. Otherwise, how will you know if you have truly moved the needle?
We offer the following as a guide for discussion at your organization. Determine what each type of engagement looks like for you and what metric or indicator will you use to gauge growth.
- Physical board engagement — doing.
Some organizations are more hands on than others because of their mission or their staffing structure. Board members volunteering in the food pantry, painting classrooms, or gathering silent auction items are all actionable, physical activities. Define for your organization where board members can roll up their sleeves to assist and determine if the activity is a chronic need or if it’s episodic. Be cognizant, too, of the line between board and staff duties to ensure clear expectations.
- Intellectual board engagement — thinking.
This is where board members can shine. How often do you ask your board members to engage in critical thinking to help solve issues? Are your board meetings so tidy that everything is presented to the board as a report out of work already accomplished? If so, that can be a missed opportunity. Assign a topic to each board meeting that is undone, messy, and/or complicated. Ask board members to read about the topic in advance and to come to the meeting prepared to discuss and debate the pros, cons, and possible solutions. The talent around your board table is there for a reason. Use it.
- Philanthropic board engagement — giving.
There is universal agreement that 100% board giving is necessary and needed, but based on national data from BoardSource we know that not all boards achieve the 100% mark. Does your organization have a “give or get” policy, a required minimum gift amount, or other criteria that is clearly articulated? It is our counsel that every board member make a gift at a level that is personally meaningful, and the “get” part of fundraising is above and beyond their “give.” A company making a gift because an executive sits on your board is not a replacement for personal philanthropy. How do you currently measure board giving and what would be the goal for increased levels of support?
- Financial board engagement — analyzing.
While making sure that the budget is balanced, donor-restricted funds are used accordingly, and cash reserves are held in designated savings accounts are staff functions, the board can and should play a critical role in analysis of finances, cash flow, investments, and endowments. Board members bring tremendous skills and different perspectives to this work. Tapping into that resource can create new levels of insight. How does the board support this work now and what gaps exist that create opportunities for new levels of engagement?
- Oversight board engagement — monitoring.
Delivering the programs and services of your mission are staff functions but the board needs to have metrics to understand if the work is effective. Asking board members to review outcomes data and performance measures with your program team is essential to their role of oversight. There are always ample ideas but hardly ever ample human and financial resources needed to implement those ideas. Engaging the board in an exercise to determine what should be expanded, created, or abandoned is powerful, especially now when the pressures are high as a result of the pandemic.
- Strategic board engagement — planning.
Where should the organization make resource investments? What opportunities exist that can be leveraged? Are there growth opportunities on the horizon? What external factors are impacting the organization? Should we consider a merger? Has our primary customer changed and do we know how to meet their needs?
These are the fundamental questions that drive strategic conversations about the state of the organization. These are also the questions that take time to answer and are much deeper than the transactional questions of how people were served last year. Look back at the last fiscal year — how often did your board engage in strategic planning questions such as these? What questions to you want to put on the table this fiscal year?
Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO