It’s a familiar story: the board meeting is feeling a little lackluster. The same few people are doing all the work, and attendance by others is lagging. The board lacks people with the expertise it needs or people who “know people with money.” And everyone is sick of worrying about fundraising. There is only one conclusion: we need some new board members, STAT!

But when you find yourself in this situation, is recruiting really the best place to start? While we are all for intentional recruiting efforts (see our article “Help Wanted: New Board Members!“) it can be a real challenge to recruit great people to join boards that feel tired and stuck.  And even if you do manage to bring a few new folks on, it’s asking a lot of your brand new members to rescue a burnt-out board –soon enough they’ll be just as overwhelmed as everyone else!  So if recruiting isn’t the answer, where should board building begin?

Here’s the truth about board work: if board meetings are interesting, inspiring, and productive; if board members feel their talents are leveraged and their time is not wasted; if people feel they are moving the organization forward and learning and having fun in the process – if all these things are true, your existing board members will step up and engage, and new people will want to join your board. So the first task must be working together to create that kind of a board team, before you bring on anyone new. Note that there is nothing on that list that should be out of reach for the average board; huge budgets or famous board members are not required. What is required is an honest assessment of what is working for your membership and what is not, a vision for the kind of board you want to be, and a willingness to make some big changes. The beauty of this approach is that the process itself will help to jump-start a flagging board, as people feel newly empowered to create the kind of group they want to be a part of.

What do Board Members Need to Be Successful?

I believe that all board members have three basic needs for a great board experience. Asking yourself how well you are meeting these 3 needs on your board can be a great place to start assessing what has to change:

  1. Board Members need to be inspired by the mission of the organization, over and over again. People joined the board because they care about the important work you do, whether it’s saving the environment or helping kids grow up healthy—not because of their great love for reading financial reports. Board members need to be given opportunities to see or hear about the work of the organization in a tangible way on a regular basis in order to stay connected to their passion. Moreover, since it is belief in the work of the organization that inspires people to volunteer, board members must be given opportunities to work on substantive issues relating to the direction, mission and vision of the organization. It is tempting to let the staff do the “real” decision making, while the board struggles with the budget and runs the fundraisers. Boards like this will never be truly engaged; nobody wants to be a rubber stamper. Great boards have meaningful discussions about important issues every time they meet. 
  2. Board Members need to have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and be given the education, skills, and support to carry this out. There is no particular reason that a smart person who is passionate about social justice or climate change (or whatever your organization works on) should love fundraising or be an experienced strategic planner. Most great board members are made, not born. They must understand exactly what is expected of them, and be given as much training and support as they will need to do it well. In my experience, most people genuinely want to be good board members, but the reality of how much support they need to do a good job may be quite different than what most of us normally provide.

Here’s a very specific example of what I mean by “enough support”: for many board members, simply saying “Please invite your friends to our benefit!” will not get the job done. How can you help them be successful with this important task?

  • At least three months ahead, take time at a board meeting to brainstorm about what kinds of new people might be interested and help them create a list then and there
  • Share sample emails they can copy, or offer a chance to role play inviting friends
  • At the next board meeting, have them buddy up and talk for 5 minutes with their partner about how their invitations are going and how they are feeling about the process. Ask buddies to call each other in two weeks to check in and give time again at the next board meeting, so they feel supported and accountable to the task.
  • Track RSVP’s and celebrate board members who are being successful; have them share tips for what is working for them with the rest of the board.

Breaking down the work and providing multiple opportunities to learn, practice, work together, and be celebrated for a job well done will help people move out of feeling stuck.  But we rarely give board members this kind of support, and instead, just feel frustrated when they are not doing what we feel they signed up to do.

3. Board members need to be supported and appreciated for what they are: volunteers. We all know that life is tremendously busy and there are many competing demands on our time. When people give up family and leisure time to put hours in volunteering for your organization, they shouldn’t just feel good about it . . . they should feel GREAT about it! They deserve to feel that their time is well spent and not excessive. They deserve to be comfortable as they carry out their work – no more meetings on terrible folding chairs in rooms that are not quite big enough for the whole board! They deserve to have fun, learn something and feel inspired at every single board meeting. And they deserve to be thanked and appreciated for all the work they do (even when you wish they would do more . . . ) Board appreciation does not have to be expensive: I once wrote a personalized limerick or haiku for every board member to thank them for their particular contribution (which people still mention to me . . . OK, you may want to think twice about that idea.) But when you do need to spend some money (to rent a big enough room to meet in or provide some specialized training)  just remember that these volunteers may be some of your organization’s greatest assets – it makes sense to invest in them and treat them well!

Evaluate What’s Working and What is Not, and Don’t Be Afraid to Change

Every board will benefit from an honest evaluation of what is working and what is not. Written surveys are a good start, but group brainstorming sessions and 1:1 meetings are also effective tools for gathering information about how people are feeling about their time on the board. In addition to discussing how you are doing with the three critical needs listed above, don’t forget to talk about your board’s cultural norms (“It drives me crazy when everyone wanders in 10 minutes late”) and logistical problems (“I can never find a parking space”). These issues can hugely impact people’s experience, and can often be resolved easily enough once they are identified. For instance, one board I worked with that included many parents with young children found that when they spent the money to provide a simple meal and a teenager to watch kids in a separate room during their meetings, both attendance and morale was vastly improved, and the cost was really quite reasonable.

I point out to boards that are engaging in an evaluation process that they really have a lot of latitude to make changes– there are very few legal requirements about how a board should operate, although some changes may require an amendment to your bylaws. If you’ve always had evening meetings but people are burnt out by the end of the day, try switching to breakfast meetings and see if the energy changes.  If no one wants to be on a certain committee, disband it and split up those tasks up in new ways. And if everyone is sick of working on that “signature” annual fundraiser, maybe it’s time for some creative new event ideas. The point is to question every practice that is based on “but we’ve always done it that way . . .” if it is not really working for your board right now.

You should also take the time to discuss in some depth the kind of board you do want to be. Having a clear vision –and even a written statement that you keep in the boardroom– about what kind of team you are trying create will help you know what you each need to do to make it a reality.

Great Board Meetings Beget Great Board Members

I once surveyed some engaged volunteers to determine what they were getting out of meetings that kept them coming back. There were 5 distinct reasons that were mentioned again and again:

  1. I felt inspired
  2. I learned something
  3. Important work got accomplished that made a difference
  4. I got to work with people I enjoy being with
  5. I made a valuable contribution (they needed me!), and it was appreciated

Always try to create agendas where people will feel these five things. Having compelling board meetings matters because it will keep your board members coming back and asking for more. Compare your agenda against this list every month, and add elements (a new story from your program, a brief learning activity, a meaty conversation, some social time, special recognition of board members’ work) to cover whatever is missing.  I’d argue that if you are having board meetings where people can call in and have almost the same experience as if they were there in person, then you are not using your meeting time as well as you could, and your board’s attendance may reflect that.

Julie and I once did a training after which we observed to the board president how much more animated and responsive his board had been when we split them into smaller working groups to discuss a particular issue. We suggested that break-outs could become a regular part of the monthly board meeting. “Well, but we have real work to get through at our meetings,” he responded. Newsflash: “real work” is accomplished when everyone is engaged! Research has shown that most board members enjoy retreats, with chances to get to know one and other and more time for in-depth discussions, much more than they enjoy regular meetings. So the goal becomes making your regular board meeting feel like a mini-retreat. These ideas can help:

    • Keep committee reports and other one-way communications that could be written to a minimum; consider using a consent agenda
    • Create a dashboard so board members can see how their work is moving the needle every month (or how they need to step up!)
    • Use break-out sessions, where people discuss an issue in small groups, to wake up a slow meeting and encourage the quieter members to get engaged
    • Try this process for helping boards have generative conversations

There are plenty of well-researched tools out there for running more efficient and effective meetings – start googling and use them!

“If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.”

So yes, all this board education, support, and meeting planning is going to take some time – maybe a whole lot of time. At this point, recruiting an entirely new board probably seems easier than providing all the support I am suggesting a really well-run and dynamic board needs! It’s true that transforming a board takes commitment on the part of your whole board team, and it will require a well-thought out plan with accountability and follow-through to be successful. (Julie’s article on plan implementation has some great tips you could apply to this process once you’ve identified what you want to change; also check out the “Practical Strategies” at the end of our article on making organizational change.)  Transformation won’t happen overnight or without effort. But if you take the time to focus on building a great team that amazing people will genuinely want to be a part of, think of all you can accomplish as your organization thrives.

We’d like to know: what’s worked for you as you’ve tried to transform your board?