Cultivating an Engaged Board of Directors

By Elaine Weber Nelson, ConsultantCapital campaign counsel, interim development and executive director, board development, strategic marketing planning and execution, annual and major fundraising expert, writer and editor 

A common complaint by nonprofit staff is that their board isn’t very engaged. Having an involved Board of Directors can be an incredible resource for an organization – but how do you develop an engaged board? The best way to do this is to have two plans: one to identify the right type of board member and another to on-board them well. This article focuses on the latter. Assuming you’ve identified your needs and recruited new members, it is really up to staff (or, perhaps, governance committee members) to inform newcomers about the organization and how they can best serve it.

The Honeymoon There is a honeymoon period for new members. They are generally both excited to join the board and apprehensive about representing it well. We want to take advantage of that excitement and provide as much information as possible to alleviate any apprehension. Well informed, confident board members are able to both represent your organization well and tend to actively engage more than board members who are less confident.

So how to encourage confidence? Provide the information they need to do their job well. This involves an orientation to the organization and opportunities to experience the mission. Organizations that are successful in having board members attend orientation sessions are those that have already told individuals that this is a requirement for board membership during the recruitment phase.

Orientation sessions can be individualized if that is the best option for your board members’ schedules. However, it is preferable to do a group orientation, that way there is less staff time involved and an opportunity for new members to meet each other in a more informal setting.

Orientation 101 What should be included in an orientation? The basic information is listed below – you may want to include additional items specific to your organization’s particular needs. However, the goal is to familiarize the new member with all the ins and outs of the organization – from the mission to how long the meetings are. Remember, the more informed, the more engaged. 

  1. Organization mission

  2. Other board members – brief background on each

  3. Meeting times, method, schedule

  4. Process for receiving meeting materials

  5. Staff composition

  6. Board member job description/expectations of board members (a review – they should have received this during recruitment)

  7. By-law review

  8. Financial position a. Investments/bank information b. Most recent statements

  9. Strategic plan

  10. Insurance coverage

  11. Travel reimbursement policy

  12. Most recent annual report

Where Do We Go from Here? And finally, orientation doesn’t end when this meeting is over. The next step is to get your new members to really understand your organization. If your organization is a food shelf and your new board member has been a long-time volunteer, they probably don’t need a tour of the facility, but perhaps they would benefit from a conversation with the program or development director. If you have someone new to the organization, they should see the programs “in action” and may very well need a tour to see where the food is kept and how it is distributed. The goal is to involve the individual in the activities so they form a connection and can knowledgeably speak about the organization. There are probably plenty of volunteer opportunities even those affiliated with the organization for years don’t know about yet. Find ways to share your organization with them so they can share it with others.