From Apathy to Enthusiasm: Nonprofit Board Engagement Strategies

Ryan Jones • Nov 24, 2020

Your nonprofit’s board of directors is a deep well of helpful knowledge, personal connections, and insight — after all, 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 this sounds like your board, or if you’re worried that 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.

Table of contents:

What is the Role of a Board Member?

Let’s take a quick look at a typical board of directors’ roles and responsibilities before getting ahead of ourselves.

The National Council of Nonprofits defines board members as “the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.”

With definitions as riveting as this, it’s no wonder boards have trouble staying awake. Legally speaking, boards must uphold three principles according to the National Council of Nonprofits:

  • Duty of Care: Take care of the nonprofit by ensuring prudent use of all assets, including facility, people, and goodwill.
  • Duty of Loyalty: Ensure that the nonprofit’s activities and transactions are, first and foremost, advancing its mission; recognize and disclose conflicts of interest; make decisions in the nonprofit corporation’s best interest.
  • Duty of Obedience: Ensure that the nonprofit obeys applicable laws and regulations, follows its bylaws, and adheres to its stated corporate purposes/mission.

Nonprofit board responsibilities include making the rules that govern an organization, ensuring that you follow those rules, and supporting your mission by finding the resources you need. They also select the chief executive and new board members. So it’s easy to see how boards are an essential part of your operation and why their active participation is vital.

Why Your Board Is Disengaged?

There’s a reason for that glazed over look in the eyes of your board chair at the end of the conference room table. Sure, maybe it’s because he decided to get the big sandwich and fries AND onion rings for lunch. But if you notice your board members withdrawing from participation in your organization’s mission, chances are they’re experiencing a difference between their expectations and the reality of nonprofit work.

Board members volunteer for many reasons: belief in your mission, access to new networks, increased visibility for their personal brand, etc. Maybe they were expecting to help more people, perhaps they wanted more recognition for their contributions, or it could be that they just didn’t realize how long everything takes in the nonprofit world. 

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. Luckily, there are ways that you can light a fire under your board to reignite their passion for your cause.

How to Re-Engage Your Board of Directors

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 can discover their original intentions when they agreed to come on board (pun intended). In that case, you can connect that base level 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 They 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 get nothing in return for hours of hard work.

Getting to the crux of their motivation could be as simple as going for lunch or making a phone call and asking some calculated questions. Here are some examples of questions you can 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?” 

Subtext: Are you interested in networking opportunities?

Question: “We are considering running some high profile events and need some well-connected individuals to commit to a role that is less time and more title so we can reach the right people. If it takes only an hour of your time, would you be willing to be the Lead Ambassador for our XYZ event? We would simply need you to add it to your LinkedIn and post something about our event to your network.”

Subtext: Do you want to raise your career profile?

Question: “I recall someone you knew was affected by XYZ. Would you be willing to tell their story for us to show others how much of an impact we can make?”

Subtext: Is your work with us motivated by a personal connection?

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

Subtext: Do you want to feel like you are making a direct impact.

Remember that these are just examples, and you’ll probably need to use a little creativity to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Step 2: Offer Them an Opportunity

Once you know why they joined, offer them an opportunity that fits with their goals. Give them something that they value: an introduction to a valuable connection, an honorary title to add to LinkedIn, a platform for their personal story, or a chance to feel truly connected with the impact you make with a small initial time commitment. Once you offer them what they want, you can then ask them for something specific.

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

After giving them something they value, it’s time to ask them for something in return. You’ll be amazed at how the dynamic will change; they will move mountains to do something for you. 

Remember that there is a reason you asked this person to be on your board. Was it for their fundraising experience or network? Ask them for specific deliverables in their area. 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 people by name who may be ideal donors.

Step 4: Engage their Emotions

You have offered them value, then asked them to do something specific; now you want to bring the feels. 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 who was positively impacted by their support and then remind them their introduction made it possible. The emotional connection to positive real-world impact is your best chance at re-engaging your board.

Learn More Tips to Engage Your Board of Directors

Watch this webinar to learn how to equip and motivate your board members to be great fundraisers.

How to Keep the Flame Burning: 8 Nonprofit Board Engagement Strategies

Congratulations on reigniting your board’s passion for your mission. But that’s not the end of the journey. Just like with donors, engaged board members need nurturing to keep supporting your organization. Here are some measures you can undertake to keep the fire in their bellies.

1. Create Committees

Sometimes, the lengthy timelines and glacial pace of nonprofit work can result in a monotony feeling that leads to disengagement. Creating smaller committees is a great way to get board members working together more closely on specific issues, accomplishing more, and alleviating the ennui.

In this post, board expert Les Wallace says, “A committee’s job is to get into the weeds and report back to the board. […] Trust your committees. Let them digest the large reports, and add what needs to be discussed to the agenda.” Instead of forcing the group to plod through every issue, turn select members into experts on specific issues.

The same blog post also suggests these helpful tips for committee development:

  • Ensure the committee has a specific set of tasks and goals.
  • Be open to having non-board volunteers as members of the committee.
  • Consider having at least one or two board members on each committee.
  • Make sure not to burden members by expecting them to participate in too many committees.
  • Be mindful of the time commitment required by members.

Feel free to create or disband 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.

2. Run Effective Board Meetings (Even Online)

As someone who works at a nonprofit organization, 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, including committee meetings, that accomplish your goals without the usual delays, squabbling, and backtracking.

Before the meeting starts, write and send an agenda that outlines the purpose of the meeting, goals and objectives, and any homework that you need members to do before attending. Include relevant minutes from previous meetings to avoid spending time recapping. Provide any updates in advance, rather than at the meeting. Meetings should be about making decisions.

Start (and end) the meeting on time and stick to the agenda. Set the tone with good or exciting news to keep everyone energized — use photos or video to tell them a story about the impact they’ve helped make to reinforce the board’s connection to your mission.

It can be tough to keep especially talkative groups or members on task but do your best to stay on schedule. 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. Here is an excellent example of the types of questions to ask.

Everything above applies for virtual 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. And for the love of all that is good and holy, 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 keep 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.

4. Regular Reporting

While your informal updates between meetings are 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 your nonprofit’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) with your board members.
  • 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.
  • If you are writing a report manually, do your best to keep it concise.

5. Streamline Your Communications With Technology 

It’s good practice to centralize board communications and pertinent information using easy access software tools that let board members touch base and find data on a whim. Tools you need:

  • Messaging – Discuss board business and keep conversations going between meetings. Recommendation: Slack.
  • Project Management – Keep track of tasks, assign responsibility, and watch your progress. Recommendation: Keela.
  • Storage – Cloud storage for record-keeping and document sharing. Recommendation: Google Drive

6. Offer Self-Assessment 

Although you should be paying attention to how your board is functioning, in reality, the board has no formal supervision; they are at the top and responsible for ensuring their functionality.

To ensure your board members are aware of their performance, run a self-assessment 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.

Here is a simple template to help you get started or check out the survey section in this post for online survey tools.

7. Exit Interviews 

Self-assessment is 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 outgoing 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 the five questions suggested by this excellent blog:

  • 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 that you were able to make a difference?

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 better than that. This post recommends some ways to thank your board and encourage them to keep supporting your organization for years to come. Our favorites include:

  • 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 communication forms. Dial-up your board members and let them hear the words of gratitude come out of your mouth.
  • Special Occasions – Show your year-round appreciation for board members on holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Send a card or deliver 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 change in the world. Your board members are essential to the growth of your nonprofit organization. Leverage their expertise and make an effort to keep them engaged as your organization grows. 


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