From Apathy to Zeal: Nonprofit Board Engagement Strategies

Ryan Jones • Mar 15, 2022

Your nonprofit’s board is a deep well of helpful knowledge, personal connections, and community insight. That’s why you asked them to volunteer in the first place. But if you can’t get your board members engaged and excited about the work you’re doing, how can you hope to access all the potential value they offer?

If you’re facing board disengagement or are worried an individual board member might be heading in this direction, it’s time to read up on why board members become disengaged and what you can do about it.

This guide reviews the top tips and strategies for reenergizing board members to make the most of their involvement and encourage board cohesion.

It’s almost impossible to entirely eradicate board disengagement. There will always be factors outside your control that contribute to listlessness or inactivity. But the strategies we’ll explore will allow you to focus on the things you can control to get your board working productively again. 

With that in mind, let’s dive in!

What is the Role of a Nonprofit Board Member?

Before we dive into exploring board disengagement, it’s important to review what exactly your board members are supposed to do. When you understand the core responsibilities board members should take on, you can strategize about the best ways to make those tasks more engaging and inspiring for them. 

Board members are the individuals who drive your nonprofit’s mission forward by overseeing ethical, legal, and financial concerns while ensuring your nonprofit has the resources and tools needed to reach its goals. 

Legally speaking, boards must uphold three principles:

  • Duty of Care: Board members should be good stewards of your nonprofit’s mission and ensure wise use of all assets, including your facilities, people (including fellow board members, staff members, volunteers, donors, etc.), and goodwill.
  • Duty of Loyalty: Your board is charged with ensuring your organization’s activities and transactions are conducted to benefit your mission, first and foremost. Board members must disclose conflicts of interest and generally make decisions in your nonprofit’s best interest. 
  • Duty of Obedience: This means board members must ensure your nonprofit adheres to relevant laws and regulations, its bylaws, and its stated purposes and mission. Failure to comply with these principles may result in diminishing your nonprofit’s reputation. 

Nonprofit board responsibilities include: 

  • Creating the rules that govern your organization 
  • Ensuring you follow those rules 
  • Supporting your mission by finding the resources you need 

Board members also play a role in choosing the executive director and new board members. All in all, these individuals are an essential part of your operations, so their active participation is vital.

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Why is Board Engagement Important?

As you can see, an engaged, functional board allows your organization to maintain a high level of efficiency and compliance with governance best practices. An engaged board also allows your organization to:

  • Pursue new opportunities, such as innovative fundraising avenues or donor stewardship activities.
  • Receive cohesive, inspirational guidance from top leaders.
  • Boost its public image and standing within the community.
  • Recruit additional, effective new board members, staff members, and volunteers.

When board members work harmoniously, they help your organization work toward its mission more effectively. That’s why board disengagement can be so dangerous. If you let it linger long enough, you’ll start to miss out on these benefits, and your nonprofit as a whole will suffer as a result. 

Why is Your Nonprofit Board Disengaged?

There’s a reason that your board chair has a glazed-over look in their eyes while sitting at the end of the conference room table. Sure, maybe it’s because they decided to get the big sandwich, fries, AND onion rings for lunch. 

But if you notice your board members consistently withdrawing from participation in your organization’s mission, chances are there’s a disconnect between their expectations and the reality of nonprofit work.

Board members volunteer for many reasons: belief in your mission, access to new networks, and increased visibility for their personal brand are just a few. Whatever their expectations may have been, when the day-to-day grind of guiding a nonprofit doesn’t match up, it’s easy for board members to lose patience, participate less, and stop making time to help out. 

Your board members might have one or more of these reasons for feeling disengaged: 

  • Frustration with the speed of progress. Nonprofit work can be slow and draining, and it can take time to enact large-scale changes. Board members might not be accustomed to this slow march toward progress. 
  • Little-to-no recognition for their contributions. Board members don’t expect a massive parade to be thrown in their honor, but they certainly expect a thank-you now and then. They can start to feel disengaged if they feel they aren’t being appreciated. 
  • Board discord. Board members might be facing collaboration challenges or general discord in the boardroom. A lack of camaraderie or teamwork among board members can lead to many of them starting to tune out. 
  • Lack of direction or training. Board members might feel disconnected from or uncomfortable in their roles if they haven’t received proper training or direction from board leaders, such as your executive committee. 

One or multiple of these issues might resonate with you as you consider the state of your organization’s board. Luckily, there are ways to light a fire under your board to reignite their passion for your cause.

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How to Re-Engage Your Nonprofit Board

The key to reawakening your board’s zeal is to remind them why they signed up in the first place. Similar to your donor engagement strategy, board members benefit from a strong emotional connection to your mission. 

Suppose you identify their original intentions when they agreed to come on board (pun intended). In that case, you can connect that personal emotion to renewed commitment and future impact for your organization.

Now let’s get practical: here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Find Out Why Members Joined Your Board.

When asking a disengaged board member why they joined, most will say they are passionately connected to your cause. While that’s likely true to a certain extent, few people will be upfront with the less-altruistic reasons behind their board service. 

And it’s totally fine to have some somewhat selfish reasons for pitching in at a nonprofit organization. After all, you wouldn’t expect them to want nothing in return for hours of hard work.

Getting to the crux of board members’ motivations could be as simple as going to lunch or making a phone call and asking some questions. Here are some examples of questions to ask that may reveal the truth:

Question: “You have been so helpful to our organization. I want to make sure we can give back to you as well. Is there anyone I can make an introduction to that may benefit you in your career?” 

What You’re Really Asking: Are you interested in networking opportunities?

Question: “We are considering running some high profile events and need some well-connected individuals to help us reach the right people. If it takes only an hour of your time, would you be willing to be the Lead Ambassador for our event? We would simply need you to share a post about the event on your LinkedIn page and add a comment about your personal connection.”

What You’re Really Asking: Do you want to raise your career profile?

Question: “I recall someone you knew was affected by our mission. Would you be willing to share their story with our audience to show how much of an impact we can make?”

What You’re Really Asking: Is your work with us motivated by a personal connection?

Question: “We are going out to meet with some of the people directly impacted by our organization. It won’t take more than an hour, and it’s a chance for you to see your work in action. Can you join us?”

What You’re Really Asking: Do you want to feel like you are making a direct impact?

Remember, these are just examples, and you’ll probably need to use a little creativity to get to the bottom of why board members decided to get involved with your organization.

Step 2: Offer Board Members an Opportunity.

Once you know why your board members joined, offer them an opportunity that fits their motivations. Give them something they truly value, such as an introduction to a valuable professional connection, an honorary title to add to LinkedIn, a platform to share their personal story, or a chance to feel truly connected to the impact you make. 

After you offer board members what they want, you can then ask them for their help and engagement in return.

Step 3: Ask for Specific Help in their Area of Strength.

After giving board members something they value, it’s time to engage them more deeply in your organization’s work. 

Remember, there is a reason you asked this person to be on your board. Was it for their fundraising experience or network? Was it because they have a background in public speaking and the potential to be a powerful advocate for your cause? Ask for specific deliverables related to each member’s skills, interests, or professional background.  

Be specific with your requests. For instance, don’t ask a well-connected person to introduce you to donors; look at their LinkedIn profile and ask them to introduce you to three prominent people within their connections list who may be ideal donors.

Step 4: Engage Board Members’ Emotions.

You have offered board members something valuable, then asked them to do something specific; now, you want to tap into their emotions to drive deeper engagement. Humans are emotional beings, and there is nothing in this world more powerful than the feeling of purpose and fulfillment. 

Show them the impact of what they did for you. If they introduced you to a donor, share the letter of gratitude from a family positively impacted by their support and then remind them their introduction made it possible. If they spoke about your cause in front of a crowd of event attendees, let them know how many attendees decided to donate after their speech. 

Creating an emotional connection to positive real-world impact is your best chance at re-engaging your board. It’s this personal connection to your mission that will keep board members engaged for the long term.

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8 Nonprofit Board Engagement Strategies

The above steps will allow you to reignite your board’s passion for your mission. But that’s not the end of the journey. Like with donors, engaged board members need nurturing to keep supporting your organization. 

Here are eight steps you can take to maintain their passion and commitment: 

1. Create Committees.

As mentioned, the lengthy timelines and glacial pace of nonprofit work can result in tedium that leads to disengagement. Creating smaller, ad-hoc committees is a great way to get board members to work together more closely on specific issues, accomplish more, and alleviate the ennui.

For example, you might create a marketing committee, events committee, or capital campaign committee. These committees differ from your standing committees, such as your development and finance committees, which require more commitment from board members. 

Be sure to create your ad-hoc committees with these guidelines in mind: 

  • Give the committee a defined set of responsibilities and goals.
  • Avoid burdening members by expecting them to sign up for multiple committees.
  • Ensure committee work doesn’t take up too much time. 

Feel free to create or disband these ad-hoc committees as required – the impermanence of committees can be a selling feature for board members since they won’t be signing up for extra duties that last indefinitely.

Also, make sure each committee is led by an effective committee chair. The committee chair coordinates committee meetings, assesses the committee’s progress, and generally ensures committee members are engaged and on track to complete goals. Someone who’s knowledgeable and excited to lead will naturally boost the rest of your committee’s enthusiasm.

2. Run Effective Board Meetings (Even Online Ones!).

As a nonprofit professional, chances are you know all too well what it’s like to suffer through a meeting that seems like it just won’t end. Why not spare your board members the same punishment? Keep your board of directors engaged by running meetings that accomplish your goals without the usual delays, squabbling, and backtracking.

Before the meeting starts, write and send a detailed agenda that outlines:

  • The purpose of the meeting
  • Progress made toward goals and objectives
  • Any homework you need members to complete before attending
  • Relevant minutes from previous meetings to avoid spending time recapping

Start (and end) the meeting on time and stick to the agenda by placing ad-hoc discussion items in a parking lot for a future meeting. 

At the same time, your meeting should provide plenty of opportunities for members to add their opinions and expertise — remember, it’s not a lecture. Try to keep it light and fun by fostering an atmosphere of camaraderie and collaboration. And don’t underestimate the power of free snacks.

After your meeting, periodically send a meeting evaluation form to measure board effectiveness. Ask board members whether they think meetings are efficient and effective and invite them to share any suggestions they have to make each gathering more productive. 

Everything above also applies for virtual or hybrid meetings (even the snacks if you’re willing to ship cookies to your board members). If you have members in different time zones, be conscious of the time of day you’ve scheduled your meeting for. 

Maintain momentum remotely by establishing clear guidelines for virtual participants, including keeping mics muted when not speaking and encouraging everyone to speak throughout the meeting. And always check your internet connection, camera, and microphone before the meeting starts.

3. Check In Between Meetings.

Nothing blindsides your board like attending a meeting with little warning and no context. To keep your board ready to act and your organization top of mind, provide regular check-ins between meetings. 

Share updates on financials, project progress, impact stories, achievements, and anything relevant to upcoming board business. Calling is sometimes the best way to conduct check-ins since it allows members to ask questions, express concerns, or tell you about things they believe should be added to your next meeting agenda. 

You should also ensure your meeting minutes are accessible by all board members so anyone who missed your last meeting can stay up to date with your progress and discussions. 

4. Send Regular Reports.

While sending informal updates between meetings is a good idea, regular, formal reports are essential. Not only do they provide organized, logical, informative updates on your work, they also give members something to refer back to when issues arise or when they’re asked questions about their activities with your organization.

Send reports at least quarterly (monthly is even better) and follow these guidelines to ensure your reports are enlightening and that your board reads them: 

  • Discuss progress made using your nonprofit’s key performance indicators (KPIs). This might include metrics such as your donor retention rate, fundraising return on investment, or donor lifetime value
  • Use a customizable software dashboard, like Keela, to track your KPIs, goals, and results. Keela’s reporting function lets you generate reports with just one click.
  • Keep reports concise. Boil down your data points to only display the most relevant and important data to members. 

Sending regular reports informs your board members of the quantifiable progress they’re making. This can be particularly engaging for board members who like to visualize progress using hard data and numbers. 

5. Streamline Your Board Management With Technology. 

It’s good practice to centralize board communications and pertinent information using user-friendly software tools that let board members stay connected and find data on a whim. Look into your options for solutions that help you handle:

  • Messaging: Discuss board business and keep conversations going between meetings using a messaging platform like Slack.
  • Project Management: Keep track of tasks, assign responsibilities, and keep an eye on your progress using a project management tool like Keela.
  • Storage: Use a cloud storage platform for record-keeping and document sharing. 
  • Board Portal: Schedule meetings, centralize online communication, build agendas, and host virtual meetings with a board governance platform like Boardable

These tools help facilitate board engagement between meetings and provide a centralized location for all digital resources board members might need. 

6. Offer Self-Assessments.

You should always pay attention to how your board is functioning, but in reality, your board has no formal supervision. They are the top leaders and are responsible for ensuring their own functionality.

To ensure your board members are aware of their performance, send them a self-evaluation survey. 

Self-assessments help members reflect on their roles, determine areas that need improvement, and express opinions they may not otherwise feel comfortable saying aloud. Learning from these assessments gives everyone the chance to address problems before they become untenable.

Use a simple template to help you get started, or check out these free online survey tools.

7. Conduct Better Exit Interviews. 

Your board members’ self-assessments are likely to reveal some useful information. However, it may be hard to get a complete picture of the board’s performance and well-being since self-assessments may be unduly optimistic or bypass certain shortcomings that would result in more board work. 

As such, it can be beneficial to conduct exit interviews. An individual’s performance assessment is likely to be the most honest during exit interviews.

Exit interviews will help you capture legacy knowledge that you can use down the road to ensure the board remains effective. Be sure to ask these five questions suggested by the Association Management Center:

  • What did you enjoy about your service?
  • In what ways would you like to continue to be involved — and if you don’t have any ideas right now, when can I touch back with you?
  • What would have made the experience better?
  • What are the three most important lessons you learned from this experience?
  • Do you feel you were able to make a difference?

Take the insights gathered from exit interviews into consideration and use them to adjust your board management strategies as needed. 

8. Show Appreciation. 

You regularly thank donors, staff, volunteers, sponsors, and suppliers. Why wouldn’t you thank your board when you’re expressing gratitude to everyone else?

Sometimes, a heartfelt, personal thank-you will do the job, but you can certainly do more than that. Go above and beyond to thank your board and encourage them to keep supporting your organization for years to come with gestures like:

  • Public Recognition: Thank board members at meetings, in your email newsletter, on your blog, or social media.
  • Personal Phone Calls: Phone calls have become infrequent in favor of less personal digital communication, but calling makes them feel like your appreciation is all the more special and heartfelt. 
  • Special Occasions: Show your year-round appreciation for board members on holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Send a card or a small gift of acknowledgment.

The best way to thank your board members is to listen to their sage advice and use what you’ve learned from them to make even more positive changes in the world.

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So, those are our top strategies for taking board members from A to Z — apathy to zeal. 

Your board members are essential to the growth of your nonprofit organization. Leveraging their expertise and making an effort to keep them engaged as your organization grows gives more cohesion and harmony to your overall development strategy.