Just as “good leadership starts at the top,” effective board engagement also starts at the top, but not in the manner you might expect. It typically starts with the board chair and Executive Director (ED) acknowledging that board engagement could improve, followed by a willingness to learn “what they don’t know they don’t know” about effective board/staff relationships in the context of an effective board structure.
Throughout my career, I have worked with hundreds of nonprofit boards and EDs, many of them wanting and wishing that their boards were more engaged but having no idea “how to get there from here.” Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” or “magic wand” that will accomplish this overnight. While not “rocket science,” an engaged board is the outcome of careful orchestration that typically takes 6-9 months of education and group process to achieve. In the end, most board members and EDs say “we can do this!” once they understand the structure, roles and expectations, but are often surprised about how much they didn’t know as they go through the process.
Do you want to get started on better board engagement? Here are some of the best practices and critical success factors to board engagement that people are often surprised to learn:
1. Every board should have a Governance Committee whose responsibilities include board recruitment, education, engagement and performance. Without board level accountability for engagement, how can a board expect that outcome without board members supporting the process?
2. It is the ED’s responsibility to create the “process” for board engagement as part of their “staff support to the board” role. While this is true, many EDs have never been taught how to perform this role well and many don’t even have it in their job description! A board can’t expect engagement if the ED is not performing the activities that result in that outcome working with a Governance Committee.
3. The board committee structure should support strategic plan implementation. Many nonprofit boards structures were established when the organization was founded and haven’t been changed or updated since. This often results in a dysfunctional committee structure that becomes a barrier to effective engagement. Effective boards restructure as necessary to achieve strategic outcomes.
4. Each board committee should have an “agenda of work” aligned with the strategic plan. While this may seem intuitively obvious, many board committee agendas are developed around the ideas of the chair and not necessarily aligned with the strategic plan. When board members know and understand how their personal knowledge, skills and abilities support the committee work as well as the accomplishment of the agency’s strategic objectives, engagement increases.
If your organization is struggling with board engagement, I encourage you to consider admitting that you need help. One of the best investments you can make is to allow us to help you though it. Surprisingly affordable, the return on investment is “priceless” in terms of improved board engagement and performance.