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Managing Your Volunteer Board: 3 Ways to Deepen Engagement

The vast majority of board members who serve charitable organizations are volunteers. According to Nonprofit Source, volunteerism peaked between 2003 and 2005 when 28.8% of Americans reported having volunteered within the past year. Today, the numbers are far less. In fact, the national volunteer rate reached a fifteen-year low of 24.9% in 2015.

Life is a balancing act, and many people lead busy lives between working full time and spending time with their families. To remain at the forefront of your volunteer board members’ minds, it’s essential to strategize a plan to keep them fully invested in your mission. 

After all, board members are a tremendous resource for nonprofits. They are your strategic planners, the face of your organization, and your biggest cheerleaders. Without a passionate board of directors, many nonprofits wouldn’t be able to run programs, raise funds, or fulfill their missions. 

Given their vital roles, the last thing you want is to risk jeopardizing board members’ passion and losing their interest altogether. To help, we’ve pulled together three ways to enhance your volunteer management skills and maximize engagement, including:

  1. Providing a meaningful onboarding experience.
  2. Making the most of your meetings.
  3. Adopting effective communication practices.

Whether you’re an executive director or an existing board leader, you can make a powerful difference in the board member experience. Let’s dive into the above tips.

1. Provide a meaningful onboarding experience.

Your board of directors is probably composed of individuals from different walks of life and various levels of experience. These individuals join your team because they want to develop valuable skills while making a meaningful impact on society. Some folks are also looking for networking opportunities, leadership experience, or simply social interaction during this time of social distancing.

Regardless of their reasons behind volunteering, we have to recognize that many individuals tend to have minimal experience with this type of role. Being in a leadership or management position may not come naturally for some people. Since your board is full of different people with different goals in mind, clearly communicating expectations will help get everyone on the same page.

Lay the groundwork for your board members by developing an onboarding experience that sets expectations upfront. While Boardable’s guide to new board members highlights several suggestions, we’ll cover a few ways you can successfully orient them and set them up for success from the start:

  • Create a welcome packet. Prior to your first meeting, share background materials that board members can take home, ponder, and formulate questions around. Some information you’ll want to share is a summary of your nonprofit’s history, your organization’s bylaws, a list of current leadership and board members, and a calendar of upcoming events.
  • Assign a “board buddy.” When someone is brand new to a role, it can be overwhelming trying to catch up. It can even be downright intimidating to speak up with questions in front of seasoned professionals, so consider assigning a mentor to help train each new member. Ideally, this individual will touch base before meetings, follow up afterward to answer questions, and simply show them the ropes.
  • Walk through each role’s responsibilities. Last but not least, you’ll want to cover each member’s duties to remove any ambiguity. To start, communicate that members should be active advocates for your mission, work with fellow board members to achieve your vision, and come fully prepared to meetings. Of course, financial contribution expectations (if any) should be made clear during the recruitment process. Communicating expectations to current and aspiring volunteers will ensure real progress can be made.

Heading into a new role can be intimidating for your new volunteer board recruits. A meaningful onboarding experience ensures everyone understands their responsibilities, and it can also ignite a passion for exceeding expectations. Plus, board members will be much more successful in their roles and have a greater impact on your cause when they understand what exactly it is they should be doing.

2. Make the most of your meetings.

Like we mentioned earlier, your board members lead busy lives. So, time spent together in the boardroom must be maximized to the fullest extent possible. 

Especially if you’re meeting virtually to keep your volunteers safe, your leadership should take actions to keep board members fully engaged in your meetings. Here are some steps that can help your board members make the most of their time together:

  • Share agendas in advance. Sending a clear and focused board meeting agenda with discussion topics allows board members to prepare thoughtful questions and input. Consider marking the goal of each item as well, whether it’s to inform, seek information, or arrive at a decision. That way, your team won’t waste time if they’ve already arrived at the intended conclusion.
  • Focus on strategy, not just administration. Meetings are a prime opportunity for your board members to thrive in their creativity and put initiatives into motion. Spend sufficient time covering the “have-tos,” but also be sure to devote ample time to more strategic discussions regarding your mission. Consider flipping your agenda to cover routine reports last in a consent agenda, leaving time and energy at the beginning for generative work.
  • Encourage participation. As stated in this resource, “[Board] members who passively listen won’t help you accomplish your goals. To be effective, board members need to participate wholeheartedly and share their insights with the group.” Encourage attendees to make comments and ask questions throughout the meeting, rather than hold them until the end. Even if they’re afraid they’ll cause dissonance, it’s important that your board members’ opinions are heard.

Your leadership will lay the groundwork by making sure meetings are always carefully planned, facilitated, and documented. But it’s up to individual board members to show up prepared and ready to participate, and every step you take to make meetings more engaging will make their job that much easier.

3. Adopt effective communication practices.

Effective communication is one aspect that you should never overlook because the quality of board members’ interactions is crucial to making strategic progress. Those who engage in productive conversations tend to be more collaborative, and when the board can work together, they’ll be much more effective in driving initiatives forward.

To keep the board communicating — with one another and the rest of the organization — invite your volunteer board members to adopt effective communication practices, starting with the tools you use. According to Double the Donation’s volunteer management guide, your software plays an important role in developing open communication, encouraging volunteer board members to follow through on tasks, and empowering them to do the best work possible.

A viable platform will enable a dialogue amongst your members both in and outside the boardroom, propelling you toward fulfilling your mission. 

If you’re unsure what software will help centralize your communications, here’s a brief overview of what features your board members should have access to:

  1. Messaging capabilities: Encourage collaboration between meetings with a discussion board where your volunteer board members can make time-sensitive decisions. Otherwise, they’ll be forced to deal with long email chains, play frustrating games of phone tag, or (worst of all) wait until the next meeting.
  2. Task management: When you hold productive board meetings, you’ll have a number of follow-up tasks. Make sure your board management software offers task delegation so everyone fully understands what their responsibilities are. This also adds an extra layer of accountability so that leadership can proactively follow up to ensure crucial tasks are completed.
  3. Document storage: Nonprofit boards handle and produce many documents like committee reports, meeting agendas, and financial information. A document center will allow members to reference materials whenever they need them. Plus, user permissions will protect confidential information by making sure only designated users have access.

To effectively serve your organization, your board needs to connect with one another. Taking extra steps toward better communication can help your board solve issues quicker, maximize the effectiveness of their limited time together, and think outside the box.

The communication channels you implement can make or break your team’s effectiveness, especially with many nonprofits currently relying on technology while working from home. Collaborative board software will enable you to overcome these barriers, and the above features will serve as the foundation for effective communication.


Wrapping Up

Your board members are the real changemakers at your organization. Most volunteer boards have a unique set of skills and need some guidance to put their expertise to use. Understanding your team’s dynamic and strategizing to make the most of their time will help to instill a collaborative spirit among board members. Start by setting clear expectations from the start and setting up well-planned meetings where your board members can share their insights.

Remember, your board engagement strategies are only as effective as the communication tools you employ, so take sufficient time to find the right platform that suits your board’s needs. In turn, you’ll develop a highly-engaged and collaborative board that’s willing to go the extra mile for your organization.


About Jeb Banner: Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.