As a leader who has a strong interest in boards and governance, I try to stay current on publications and discussions about board engagement. I have heard and read many opinions on how to keep a nonprofit board engaged, but it is usually advice for the executive director. Many articles, such as Guidestar's "Keeping Your Board Engaged for Your Cause," offer tips to the executive director about keeping a board informed and clear on their roles, goals and objectives. While this advice is extremely valid, I believe board engagement is a two-way commitment. As a new board member of a small theatre company, I have been thinking a lot about board engagement from the board member’s point of view. With the new year in full swing, I’ve started considering my responsibility to ensure I remain engaged and interested during my term and I would like to offer a few thoughts and ideas on what to consider when striving for full board engagement.
Just as an organization’s leader should ensure the board is engaged, each board member should take responsibility for their own engagement level. Oftentimes, the likelihood of your ability to remain engaged and committed can be determined before you even join. When considering board membership, it’s important to honestly and accurately assess the responsibility level. Do you really have time to add something else to your plate? How would this conflict with your current personal and/or professional commitments? While it is a volunteer position, the role still requires necessary work. Your intentions of joining may be honorable, but if you don’t have the time to read documents, attend meetings and promote the organization’s work, perhaps you should consider volunteering in a different capacity. Adding another commitment that you don’t really have the capacity for will almost certainly affect your ability to remain engaged.
Before becoming a board member, it’s important to be clear on why you are joining this particular board, and why the organization is soliciting you to join their board. In "Maximizing Board Engagement and Effectiveness," a 2013 survey conducted by the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management, 34% of respondents did not select “belief in organization’s mission” as a reason for becoming a board member. Instead, they cited that someone from the organization asked them to participate, they were interested in working with another board member or they joined to advance their professional career. Other times, an organization may solicit you to join their board because you are wealthy, a celebrity or have influence among the constituency they serve. None of these are bad reasons to join a board, but they could certainly affect your level of engagement. Once you are clear about your motivation to join the board, you can begin a conversation about the appropriate level of commitment for your role.
Board structure should also be considered when becoming a board member. The way the board functions will heavily influence your level of engagement. Traditionally, board members have all shared the same roles and responsibilities. For example, they may all be expected to serve on committees and attend all board meetings. But as I mentioned in a previous Field Notes post, it seems that structure is no longer proving to be effective. Should a board member with celebrity status have the same responsibilities as a board member who is an accounting professional? In the Axelson Center survey, 30% or respondents said they “sometimes” or “never feel their talents are being used effectively, and 56.8% of board members reported that they do not feel their board is currently structured for maximum effectiveness. As a new board member, I am realizing that it is my responsibility to communicate my interests, skills and habits to initiate the conversation about how I can be most effective. If my role is not interesting, my engagement will certainly wane.
Even if you were excited when you first joined the board, mid-term, your engagement level may have decreased, and you may not have even realized that’s happened. While managing your various personal and professional commitments, it’s very easy to become complacent with the level at which you are serving. Periodic self-assessments are imperative to ensuring your engagement. According to the Axelson Center survey, 54% of boards never conduct a self-assessment. In a 2008 Urban Institute survey, 86% of boards were not very active in monitoring their own performance. As a board member, I am realizing how important these assessments are to ensure effectiveness and that I am fulfilling my duty to the organization. Typically, the board chair and CEO monitor this, but these conversations can often be difficult. As board members, we can take responsibility for recognizing when our motivations change, while keeping focused on the organization’s mission. These conversations will help the board remain effective, while actively building a positive relationship with the CEO. As mentioned in this Ray & Berndtson report, the relationship between the board and the CEO can only be successful as a partnership based on shared objectives and commitments. I want to be a board member that takes responsibility for ensuring I remain an engaged and effective member.
As is made clear in "The Changing Landscape of Trustee and Board Engagement," the future of nonprofit boards is to take a more active role in offering effective oversight. Everyone must bring their “personal best to the table.” Though it was created in 2012, this New Year's resolutions list is still very relevant to helping board members think about how to do just that. As nonprofit board members, let’s all add this to our list of 2014 resolutions: in this new year, let’s all assess our current commitments, roles and levels of engagement. We all have room for improvement. Let’s all turn over a new leaf, re-examine our work life, refocus our goals and refresh our commitments for the greater good!