By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial
One of the frequent concerns that I hear from nonprofit staff and board leaders is about board member engagement.
The challenge, however, is that board member engagement often has an “I’ll know it when I see it” quality and we don’t always do a great job of describing what we mean by this. Over the years, I’ve come to hear the desire for board member engagement as a way of saying, “I want to see that the organization and its work are important to my board members. I want to know that the organization is a priority to them.”
This makes sense. An organization’s leaders want to know that the board members who are making the critical organizational decisions view the organization, and the decisions they make regarding it, as important. But what does it mean to be an engaged board member? Board members may say that the organization is important to them, but what are some of the ways that we can really tell that this is the case?
Something I notice when I work with nonprofit organizations is the level of responsiveness —from board members as well as staff. How long does it take to get a response to an email? What about the time it takes to return a phone call? We’re all busy people, but we tend to prioritize the people and activities that are important to us.
When board leaders talk about lack of board engagement, they often mention lack of responsiveness — to questions, to meeting requests or to calls for feedback on an event or activity. In some cases, silence is an indicator of approval, but when information or feedback is requested, and there is no response, it’s not only frustrating to staff and board leaders, it can slow down the work of the organization. Being responsive — answering a staff email in a timely manner or returning a phone call from the board president — is one indicator that the organization and your board responsibilities and participation are priorities to you.
Being fully present
Being present starts with attending board meetings. A board is a team of talented individuals assembled to guide an organization’s direction and activities. The power in this team is in its collective wisdom and talent. When a board member misses a meeting, the group loses the benefit of the talents and skills that person brings to the table. Once again, what takes precedence in our schedules indicates a level of commitment and priority.
In addition to being physically present at board meetings, board members need to be mentally and emotionally present, as well. This means that members have read the board packet and have come to meeting prepared to discuss and weigh-in on the agenda items. It also means eliminating (or at least, limiting) multi-tasking — checking email and texts, for example, during the meeting. Being fully present means sticking with the meeting until its conclusion rather than packing up and looking for car keys as the group discusses the last few items. Once again, the power of the board is in its collective talents. When members don’t fully engage in the work of the meeting, or simply ‘go along to get along,’ the strength of the board — and by extension, the strength organization, is diminished.
Out of sight, but not out of mind
Just as thoughts of people who are important to us waft into our minds when they aren’t present, board members who are connected and engaged think about their organizations between meetings. Boards do much of their work at meetings, but meetings often involve follow-up or preparatory work. Some of this may be done in committees, some may be individual work. Engaged board members work on behalf of the organization outside of the scheduled meetings, even if it’s only to follow-up on a task or to prepare for an upcoming meeting.
Engagement is grounded in commitment and passion
It’s difficult to be engaged, to be responsive, to show up, and to think about the organization, without a certain level of commitment and passion. Commitment and passion for an organization come from a strong belief in its mission, its purpose and the sense that the organization is doing important work. Without this connection, board participation can feel like just another obligation. And we know that it’s hard to be engaged when just going through the obligatory motions, other things simply take precedence.
Nonprofit organizations in our communities do important work. Board members who are committed to, and passionate about, that work and express this through active engagement with the organization are an important component of ensuring that organizations are successful in working toward their missions and improving our communities. Leaders of organizations are right to be interested in having engaged, committed volunteers around their board tables. It does us all a disservice to seek anything less.
Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.