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Defining And Measuring Board Engagement

Defining and Measuring Board Engagement

Charles Dahan hosted a webinar on Feb. 4th titled What is Board Engagement Anyways (and how can we get more of it)?

Few terms are as overused and under-defined as “engagement.”

Making a decision requires expending a person’s most valuable resources: time and energy. In order to be “engaged,” an individual must decide to make an investment, whether it is on behalf of an organization, a board, an association, an alumni association, or an after-work softball league. My goal with this post is to first change your mindset about engagement, and second to offer suggestions for measurement and implementation.

Engagement Mindset

“Engagement” is often thought of as a rather ‘mushy’ term, undefined and used as a placeholder for any type of relationship between an organization and individuals, be they employees, customers, members, or board members. It is often conceived of along two axes: ‘warmth’ or sentiment by individuals toward the organization, or a broad composite of interactions between organizations and individuals.

Similarly, the purpose of engagement—its end goal—goes undefined. Customers are certainly ‘engaged’ with many cable television companies, but studies show this is precisely the type of relationship an organization would want to avoid, with incredibly low customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction. This would not seem to be the intended purpose or goal of such engagement.

Instead, we should define engagement as a relationship between an organization and individuals, measured by the investment individuals make to strengthen the organization, ensure its long-term viability, increase positive sentiment, and progressively increase future investment. This definition includes three types of engagement: psychological engagement, professional engagement, and tangible investment.

Psychological Engagement

Psychological engagement is the perceived relationship an individual has with an organization.

This can be measured using surveys to test the ‘warmth’ an individual feels toward an organization, as well as the relationship an individual believes they hold. For example, perhaps an individual perceives the organization as looking out for their best interests. An individual may even view the organization as a ‘friend,’ personifying it to the point that the individual serves as a defender and advocate for the organization. The benefits of increased psychological engagement are both positive (increased likelihood of making tangible investments) and preventative (greater likelihood of forgiving an organization for any missteps).

Using survey language such as “I view the organization as looking out for my best interests; and, I FEEL close to the organization” can be an effective form of measurement and easily correlates with other forms of investment and engagement.

Professional Services

One significant purpose of many associations and organizations is to help its members in their professional or social endeavors. This is a form of engagement known as Consumption.

“Magazine members” are one such example. These members are vital to any organization, and are satisfied with consuming information presented by the organization. While these individuals may not appear to make significant investments in the organization, they nonetheless have their needs met (and contribute financially) by consuming content the organization offers. As long as these members’ investment is higher than the services they consume, they should not be considered “free-riders.” Instead, an organization should identify variables that help these members to increase their investment and involvement.

Tangible Investments

Behavioral measures—rather than survey measures—are the gold standard of gauging the strength and vitality of an organization. Individuals may hold positive views toward an organization, yet if they are unwilling to invest their time and money on its behalf, there it will quickly wither.

For boards, software can be utilized to measure the investment board members make in the organization. The amount of time board members invest in reading board materials (or even opening board materials!), communicate via electronic means, ask questions, and produce content can all serve as latent, non-invasive ways to track behavioral tangible investment.

Correlating sentiment (psychological engagement) and behavior (tangible investment) can serve as an excellent measure of overall engagement. For example, correlating an action—such as an outreach campaign, increasing educational services, or a voter turnout drive—and conference attendance or donation rate, can help organizations test the relationship between psychological, professional, and tangible engagement.

An organization can identify members who previously have tangibly invested yet have subsequently cut back the time and money they put toward the organization. Surveys and interviews may be utilized to find variables that caused that change.

Behavioral Measures before Indirect Measures

It’s important to define your concept of engagement—and clearly delineate between different definitions, particularly when creating methods of measurement. Always attempt to utilize behavioral measures—those that are not “invasive,” and do not require additional participation by the respondent—prior to indirect means of measurement, such as surveys.

Be sure to check out the webinar I hosted titled What is Board Engagement Anyways (and how can we get more of it)?

Charles Dahan

Charles is a research fellow and Ph.D candidate in the University of Florida political science department, specializing in behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, and public opinion. He is published in a wide range of peer-reviewed and industry publications, and helps associations, companies, and membership organizations define and achieve their goals through utilizing rigorous, quantitative research.

He has received multiple research grants, including serving as a 2015-2016 Innovation Researcher for the American Society of Association Executives, with a nation-wide series of focus groups and survey research to help associations identify and train effective leaders while quantifying member and leader engagement.

His broad research agenda has a singular focus: what variables affect how and why individuals engage in healthy, positive, and collaborative behaviors. This academic research informs a puzzle for business: what is “engagement” and how can organizations increase their efficacy, productivity, and member satisfaction?

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