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Transforming Board Engagement

Transforming board engagement: Expert insights for mission-driven success


Nurturing board engagement takes conscious, dedicated effort for every board president and administrator. An engaged board, with members that clearly understand their roles and what is expected of them, will guide a mission-driven organization to success.

We asked experts to share their opinions and tips on volunteer board member engagement for mission-driven organizations, and several key themes emerged.

Experts discuss board engagement in mission-driven organizations

Foster engagement from the start

“Recruitment of the right candidates is crucial to the success of a nonprofit board, as well as engagement of those individuals once they have agreed to serve. Equipping your board with the knowledge and resources they need is essential to their success as a board member and will lead to more active participation. Education around your organization’s mission, having a clear board job description, providing a solid board orientation process, assigning a mentor and utilizing a board platform are key strategies to boosting your board member engagement.” Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Assistant to the President, Corporate Secretary and Corporate Compliance Officer, Presbyterian SeniorCare Network

Understand that you only have one chance to make a first impression, and you want your new board members to feel confident with your organization and their role from the beginning. Your onboarding process and materials should be easy to understand and follow with to minimize uncertainty for new members. Also, ensure you provide clear expectations on the board member’s role. These materials can be published through your board management software.

Know what your board members can do

“We are missing out on opportunities for skill-based volunteers through our board members but also their networks. I serve on several boards and I find that I’m not asked. Many of our organizations are not asking the right questions of their board members. How can you create a win-win for not just the organization but identify the goals of the board members? It’s a different model and mindset of relationship building.” Froswa’ Booker-Drew, Ph.D., President, Soulstice Consultancy

“Some nonprofits make the mistake of pigeon-holing board members based on only a small set of those experiences and skill sets. For example, you might have a prominent attorney on your board who also has had executive level experience in HR or a CEO of a local organization who also has experience launching a tech startup. Take the time to really talk to each board member and get them to tell you their stories. Find out all the interesting tangents their careers and lives have taken, and discuss with each board member creative ways their skills and connections might help your organization meet its mission.” Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director, Diligent Institute, and founder of BoardEffect

When you aren’t exploring all the facets of your board members’ expertise and interests, you’re leaving opportunity on the table. Survey your new directors to collect their skills and experience and keep that data accessible when facing a challenge or launching a new project.

And know what they want to do

“There are a variety of additional things board members may expect when they join, such as leadership opportunities, learning new skills and visibility to their employer. You should have regular conversations with them about how they themselves want to engage. Having discussions with them and assessing board member satisfaction will make them partners in board engagement. After all, a board is a team, and all members are to some extent responsible for their own engagement.” Barbara Paxton, Director, BoardStrong

“I’ve never met a nonprofit board member who joined the board just to take up a chair. They had a vision for what they wanted to contribute to the board when they joined. Learn what that vision is and leverage it. For example, maybe they have a personal passion for your mission because of a pivotal life experience. Maybe they are keen to use skills that they no longer have the opportunity to use in their work lives. Talk to them about their vision and lean into it.” Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director, Diligent Institute, and founder of BoardEffect

Create a win-win scenario with your board members — one in which they benefit from the partnership and are heard and recognized.  It is one of the best ways to reduce turnover and have a more engaged board. Along with their skills and experiences, this information can be collected through surveying in your board management solution.

Help board members make a difference

“Volunteer board members are vital to the health of nonprofit organizations — they bring their diverse experiences and wisdom to advance our work, raise money to support us and are ambassadors and cheerleaders for our causes. We ask a lot of them. To encourage their engagement, it is important for us to remember that they need to get something out of us, too. The most basic things board members want to receive in their board service are connection to your mission, an opportunity to interact with new and interesting people and seeing that their work has an impact on your organization.” Barbara Paxton, Director, BoardStrong

“Formulating strategy and fostering a psychologically safe environment are crucial for engaging board members. Prior to a board strategy day, collaboration with the chair and CEO enabled the collection of each director’s top strategic priorities. These insights were compiled into a strategy paper, facilitating inclusive discussions where diverse opinions were valued. This approach ensured that every director’s voice was heard, paving the way for constructive dialogue and actionable resolutions.” Belinda Loke, Board Director, QEC and Kids Hope Australia, and Founder and Principal Lawyer, Legalexa

A common mistake is to assume board members can see for themselves the results of their contributions. Along with understanding their backgrounds, skills and professional priorities, you must ensure board members can see how their service is making a meaningful difference in the organization’s mission. Provide regular status reports with straightforward metrics in the dashboard of your board management tool, and celebrate the board’s wins.

Focus on ongoing education

“Make sure that board meetings have information about the work that you are doing. Consider doing a regular board update that has a few success stories or updates on a challenge you have been dealing with. Schedule program visits, so they can experience your work in person.” Barbara Paxton, Director, BoardStrong

“The best board members are intellectually curious — they consume insights on a wide array of topics both within and outside the industry of the boards on which they serve. They remain open to changing their minds on issues based on the evidence, which, in fact, is the very nature of the board’s Duty of Care. The management team and governance professionals play a critical role in fueling the board’s curiosity by structuring regular opportunities for board education.

“Suggest a number of board members enroll in board education and certification programs on topics where your organization has a light bench of expertise. Send directors to conferences — not only conferences in your industry, but events where they can learn about broader trends and best practices that can help your organization in unforeseen ways.” Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director, Diligent Institute, and founder of BoardEffect

Keep board members interested and engaged by offering regular and, at times, unexpected learning opportunities. Bring or send your board members outside the meeting room to engage with your work and enhance their knowledge. Schedules, invitations and RSVPs and other materials related to the education opportunities can be maintained in your board management solution.

Build board relationships

“Connection to each other is important, not only because board members are more engaged if they feel connected to their fellow board members, but also because that connection makes open conversations easier. Build some time to socialize into meetings. Have a board retreat that includes team building. Schedule a few social events — like family day during the summer or board dinner after a meeting. Board members will be more engaged and look forward to seeing their friends at board meetings.” Barbara Paxton, Director, BoardStrong

Connection shouldn’t be limited to breaks between agenda items. The more positive the relationships and communications between board members, the better their quality of service and longevity on the board. For boards that meet online or have hybrid meetings, encourage board members to collaborate in private workrooms and have other opportunities to work together informally.

Use board members’ time wisely

“Too often board papers are unfocused, overly long and do not help board members to ask the right questions and make the right decisions. Regularly review, assess and redesign the processes for developing and delivering the board packet to enable board members to evaluate and determine the actions and decisions that are right for the organization.

“The board papers need to be presented in a format that is clear, focused, actionable and customized to the needs of the board members. The ask of the board for each paper in the pack needs to be stated upfront — is it an item for information, discussion, decision or action — and the rest of the paper should inform, support and enable the board members to deliver effectively on the ask.” Diarmaid Ó Corrbuí, CEO, Carmichael

“Most board members are extremely busy people. Make sure you’re using easy-to-use board software and getting reports to them with enough advance time that they can read them thoroughly and mark them up with questions to raise at the board meeting. Work with the board chair and CEO to structure meeting agendas so that they aren’t just regurgitation of the contents of these reports, but rather focus on strategic discussions of how the board and staff can work together in service of the mission. The more board meetings focus on active discussion over passive listening, the more engaged the entire board will be.” Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director, Diligent Institute, and founder of BoardEffect

Do not allow your meeting processes to stagnate. Many boards continue to struggle with awkward board packets, complicated reviews, unintuitive file systems and other resources that make board service more like a scavenger hunt. By narrowing your board processes to a fit-for-purpose tool like a quality board management solution, your directors always know where to find their materials. Label action items simply and directly in the approval workflows, and board members can spend more time on the work that matters.

Read our other expert-led articles: 

Use the right tool for the role

“If we had to access multiple platforms, I don’t think our board members would be as engaged as they are through BoardEffect. They can access everything from past agendas to libraries. We have videos for them, so I think it’s just super helpful to be able to direct them to one location instead of multiple places. Recently, we’ve been onboarding a youth council, ages 16 to 23, and seeing their ease with the platform and how excited they were to have something to use and feel more official within the process. I think that makes me excited for the future and for what’s to come within governance.” Ericka Rodriguez, Executive Assistant to the Chief Executive Officer/President, YMCA of the USA

“For me, the measurable outcome (of using BoardEffect) is that you know that the board members have really engaged in the materials now. It’s evident through their logins beforehand, it’s evident in the discussions, in the boardroom and their questions around the material. All of those things mean they have put some thought into it and have engaged.” SuEllen Holmes, Chief Operating Officer, International Network of Churches

“The expertise and diverse perspectives of volunteer board members in the nonprofit and charity sectors are invaluable for driving positive change. With BoardEffect, we provide a seamless platform for board members to collaborate, share insights and stay informed. By leveraging this powerful tool, board members can actively participate in discussions, access key documents and contribute to decision-making processes, ultimately enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of their organization and helping to deliver its mission.” Ellen Glasgow, General Manager, Mission Driven Organizations, Diligent

Board management software — like Diligent’s BoardEffect — occupies a unique and valuable place in the work of the effective mission-driven board. It supports the board by offering a single location for all facets of board work, including action items with linked reference materials, searchable archives, voting, streaming meeting capabilities, private meeting rooms and an easy-to-use interface that helps new directors get comfortable quickly. And it’s flexible enough to be used for working groups, staff and all the stakeholders the organization relies upon.

BoardEffect is designed with the unique needs of volunteer boards in mind. Our nonprofit board management software supports director engagement with features that help members serve with confidence, efficiency and flexibility.

Jennifer Rose Hale

Jennifer Rose Hale has over 20 years' experience with digital and employee communications in for- and nonprofit environments. Her writing and client areas of expertise include education, finance, science and technology.

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