August 19, 2022

What is Board Engagement? What’s the Best Way to Create It?

“It’s not about a notebook or a checklist,” explains Audrey, a nonprofit CEO with super board engagement. “Most of our board members serve on many boards. They expect a notebook and a checklist of their responsibilities.”

So, what is board engagement? The best board engagement happens when your board members apply their best gifts—skills, and thinking—to provide unique value to your organization.

Let’s go back to Audrey. She builds board engagement individually. She asks members, “What things have you enjoyed doing when you served on this or other boards?”

What board members like is your starting point, too. Listen to the answers, take notes, and brainstorm with your board chair or staff on ways to invite each member to do more of what they enjoy. It’s a bit like Marie Kondo’s approach to tidying. You guide your board members to activities that spark joy and fulfill the organization’s needs.

If you want your board members to love serving, take this further. Uncover their favorite activities and direct them to them. Why? To go beyond what members like so you can tap your board members’ favorite professional activities. What makes them light up?

board engagement graphic showing what your nonprofit needs, what members love doing, the intersection is your ask

Ask, “As my trusted advisor, what kinds of things or issues would I call upon you to get advice on?”

One CPA board member answered, “I love when I get to figure out messy financial situations and my clients get the information they need to make solid financial decisions.”

Later that year, the CEO called the CPA: “I need some accounting help, and I think my request is up your alley. As you know, we’re taking over an existing program and can’t figure out how to get their records to mesh with ours–so we know what’s going on. Can you help?

Over the next several weeks, the two conferred about the acquisition. Amid one discussion, the ordinarily stoic member gushed, “I’m having so much fun.”

Activities people love to do—not forms or checklist completion or even things they enjoy—create the best board engagement. And, when it comes to your nonprofit board, you want the best, don’t you?

Board Engagement: Board Members and Boring Things

At this point, you’re probably thinking, this is all well and good, Karen, but I need my members to do tasks that are well, just plain work. First, understand that assignments that are a slog for you are not so  for others.

Furthermore, board members who get to do what sparks joy more readily put up with tasks that “come with the territory,” such as reviewing reports. (Remember how people prepare for Thanksgiving every year. They spend days shopping, cleaning the house or traveling, and dealing with crowds to create or participate in a festive meal.

Do You Really Want to Engage Your Board Members?

Embrace this Board Engagement Approach

When it comes to board engagement, ask your member to fulfill more than their obligations. Tap your board’s talents, skills, and passions to add the value you need at your nonprofit. To engage your board members, to paraphrase The Godfather, “Make them offers they can’t refuse.”

Engaged board members:

  • Makes a significant contribution financially and of their talents
  • They are open to doing more because of the impact they make
  • Tolerate (at first) and, over time, see the value of meetings and tasks because those activities are the glue that makes a difference.
  • “Get” and contribute to building an engaging board culture
  • Inspire others.

The best board engagement is not easy, but the outcome is invaluable.

For more about board engagement, check out these board resources. Need more help with your board? Karen is available for a mini-consult or more. Click here to email or chat.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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