In my work with nonprofits, I am frequently tasked with figuring out why member engagement is lower than expected by the organization. The executives tell me about what is being done to entice members to join or renew their memberships, which demographic is now identified as their target group, and the interesting programs that are on the horizon that will surely bring more attention to the organization. I listen politely and the first question that I usually ask in response is “how engaged are your board members?.” If the answer is silence or “probably average”, then I have a good sense of why the organization is having trouble with gaining or retaining membership.
Board member disengagement paralyzes nonprofit organizations. Too many organizational leaders inadvertently encourage and sanction disengagement when they allow their board members to show up at meetings, nod their heads in agreement, and then go home. The work of the organization can’t move forward without active leadership by human beings who are committed and who care. Without accountability and commitment to achieving goals by those entrusted to its leadership, the organization will struggle.
Strong member engagement starts with sharing and modeling the examples set by an effective leadership team. For nonprofit membership organizations, that leadership starts and ends with the board of directors. Meaningful board engagement is crucial to building an organization that moves the needle and impacts the greater community.
An effective member of the board of directors has a clear understanding of her roles and responsibilities in governance, program building, mission delivery and fundraising. She understands and can articulate the organization’s mission, goals and objectives to prospective members, funders and community leaders. She shares meaningful relationships and industry experience meant to enrich the organization and the general membership. She is an active participant in leadership activities and attends board meetings, membership events and community activities as a high visibility thought leader, not just an observer.
Low engagement can be an issue with a single individual or it can be a result of inexperienced board leadership. Before executives point fingers at individual board members, consider how some board practices can contribute to the lack of engagement of your nonprofit board. Consider how the following conditions could impact someone’s desire to serve:
Board meetings have no opportunity for meaningful discussion due to time constraints on topics.
Board members are not encouraged to challenge assumptions or ask for more information without negative reaction by executives.
Board members receive important information at the last moment and don’t have time to formulate questions before meetings.
Board members are assigned no meaningful work to do outside of the meeting environment.
Board members are not held accountable for the success of the strategic plan.
When the norm on the board is disengagement, there are more likely to be disagreements and unprofessional discussions that impact the foundation of the organization and spread the bad attitudes to the membership.
Engagement breeds engagement. Consider requiring that board members have a proven expertise in a key board competency (fundraising, program building, organizational development, etc) before they are appointed to the board. Board members are more likely to be energized by their peers who are actively engaged in the organization and in their industry. The most engaged board members are active brand ambassadors of your nonprofit brand to sponsors and funders, existing members, prospective members, and to the community at large. Current and prospective members and sponsors are encouraged by the prospects of the organization when the leadership leads by example.