By: Rena Henderson
Founder and CEO, Bold Agenda
After hanging up the phone, I realized that this was the third time in one week that an Executive Director or Board Chair described to me the same problem. My client left another uninspired and unfocused board meeting and complained of the malaise on his board: poor attendance at meetings, missed fundraising goals, board meetings that were not focused or goal-oriented, and a certain few board members dominating the discussion. He was frustrated because he knew they could not bring new board members in, nor close their increasing deficit with half of the board disengaged and the other half focused on the wrong things.
Here was another organization that was facing declining board engagement. I believe this may be the greatest problem facing mission-driven organizations today, but most leaders don’t know how to tackle it.
Frequently, organizations try to address the symptoms without an understanding of the underlying problems and how they can be prevented. In most cases, focusing in on the following three areas will have the greatest impact on building a highly engaged and effective board:
- Board Recruiting – Attract the Right People, Leverage Their Talent and Value Their Perspective
Engagement starts with an effective recruiting process and is a journey that continues as boards orient, train and evaluate their members. A critical goal is to make the business case for why greater diversity is valuable, defining how diversity supports the mission and design in greater functional and social inclusion.
- Board Design and Processes – Structure the Board for Greater Effectiveness
Engagement and inclusivity are reinforced with a well-designed board and committee structure and meeting agendas that enliven discussions and highlight generative thinking. These elements help support an organization’s ability to move ahead on transformational change.
- Board Performance and Culture – Build the High-Performance Board
Engagement is heightened when the board asks the right questions and knows what a high-performance board should be doing. Moving your board from focusing on operations to governance is an important step in that direction. Much of this depends on a high-functioning, collaborative partnership with the Board Chair and CEO.
Each focus area requires diagnosis of the issues affecting engagement for your board. We recommend that an organization conduct a board self-assessment to determine what’s working well and what areas need attention. Then it is important to drill down on the weakest areas to explore how to build engagement one step at a time, meeting by meeting, and with attention to each board member’s contribution to the effectiveness of the board.
It’s not magic; enhancing board engagement does take time and requires a persistent and methodical effort in board building, starting with recruiting, moving on to committee structures and meeting agendas, and culminating in building the culture and the Board Chair-CEO relationship. Most importantly, it needs the commitment of both board and staff leadership and must be aligned with the organization’s mission, values and strategic priorities.
Are you ready to have a more engaged board?