Recently, a former board member of an environmental organization explained to me why he resigned: “When I joined the board, I sat through meetings for six months. We sat around and listened to reports. We never really made any meaningful decisions, nobody asked questions, and I didn’t feel like I was adding any value. I felt like a potted plant. So I quit. I told them I was too busy, but really, it just felt like a waste of time.”

I see this pattern play out more frequently than it should. Great volunteers like this guy—smart, hard-working, dedicated—drift away. By his account, everybody else on the board appeared to be satisfied with the status quo. As a newcomer, he didn’t think that it was his place to challenge the passiveness of the board.

Boards often inherit ways of operating that get in the way of meaningful work. In some nonprofit organizations, all that’s asked of board members is that they review written reports, show up to meetings, listen to updates, and approve (a.k.a. rubberstamp) staff recommendations. At best, board members are bored and disengaged, and the organization is missing opportunities to benefit from diverse perspectives, expertise, and resources. At worst, the board is not fulfilling its fiduciary, strategic, and leadership responsibilities, and the organization may be at risk.

Hopefully, this description doesn’t apply to your organization. But how do you know for sure? If you’re the CEO, how confident are you that your organization is getting the best efforts that your board has to offer? If you’re the board president, how familiar are you with what motivates your board colleagues? If you’re a board member at-large, what do you know about the skills and strengths that each of your colleagues brings to the table?

Happily, you don’t have to guess. Instead, you can make some time for a meaningful conversation, to create a shared understanding of what’s working, what’s not, how you want to work together, and what to do next. (By the way, if your organization is already doing some kind of written board evaluation or an inventory of board member skills, that’s great. The information that you collect can be a useful building block for strengthening the board. However, unless that information leads to a shared understanding among the board, you’re missing an important opportunity for them to take more responsibility for their own effectiveness and engagement.)

The exercise that’s outlined here could be one of several conversations that happens during a full-day board retreat. It could also take place as a mini work session during a regular board meeting. With attentive facilitation, it takes about 60 minutes. If you’re the type of board that typically has a monthly two-hour meeting, that may seem like a huge time commitment. It is. However, what’s at risk if you’re not finding time to have these kinds of conversations? And what might be possible if you had a shared understanding of the board’s individual and collective strengths, and of what’s getting in the way of their best efforts?

GOALS. There are several goals for this conversation:

  • To deepen relationships among the board
  • To foster a shared understanding of what’s helping and what’s impeding board effectiveness
  • To share information about individual strengths, skills, and how people want to be involved
  • To encourage the board to take more ownership for their individual and collective effectiveness
  • If time allows, to identify prospective officers and to identify board training needs

PROCESS: Without careful moderating, board discussions often allow a handful of people to dominate. This outline offers a more structured approach, to ensure that every voice is included in the process. The suggested times are based on addressing about five to seven open-ended questions.

  • Overview and instructions (5 minutes).
    • Explain what this conversation will be about and why you’re having it. For example, the Chair of the Board Development Committee could open the process with something like this, “The Committee wants to ensure that the board is as engaged and productive as possible. So today we want to spend some time as a board talking about what’s working, what’s not, and how we can make better use of the energy and resources that each of us is bringing to the table.”
    • Explain basic logistical details, including:
      • The process. Participants will fill out a worksheet independently, there’ll be some conversation, and then the committee will collect the worksheets so that they can use that information to follow up as appropriate.
      • Who’s participating. Decide in advance whether any attending staff members will participate, and tailor the questions appropriately.
      • What we’ll be talking about. Distribute a worksheet (here’s a sample) of open-ended questions. Suggested questions are listed below, and on the sample worksheet. Of course, feel free to adapt the questions to your priorities, keeping it to a reasonable number.

Please complete each sentence with a brief phrase or two.

  •  I feel like I’m giving my best to this organization when…
  • I’m most ambivalent about my involvement here when…
  • The most important strengths, skills, and background that I bring to this team are…
  • In my work with this organization, I want my contribution to be about…
  • As a board-staff team, our biggest strengths are…
  • We would be more effective if…
  • Individual reflection (10 minutes). Ask people to take about 10” to reflect, individually, on the questions provided, and to jot down brief responses. To encourage short answers, the space available for written responses is small. For many boards, this is the first time discussing questions like this, and it’s easier to uncover common themes and divergent views when participants focus on high-level observations.
  • Paired conversations (10 minutes). Have folks discuss their responses in pairs. Give them a sign half-way through, to ensure that both people have a chance to share their views.
  • Group debrief: (30 minutes).
    • Share highlights and key ideas from paired conversations (~10 minutes). As a whole group, run briefly through each of the questions to capture the flavor of responses, jotting down keywords on a whiteboard of flip chart. This quick step is about sharing information, not deep discussion, so keep it brief. Make sure you hear from each pair at least once.
    • Discuss what you’re learning (~10-15 minutes). Based on those highlights, ask a couple of open-ended questions about what patterns they’re noticing and what they’re learning. A couple of tips to facilitate a more open and honest conversation:
      • Allow for silence as people shape their initial thoughts.
      • Invite and validate multiple perspectives. “Does anybody have a different perspective on that?” “Thanks for taking the risk of sharing a different viewpoint. That can really deepen the conversation.” Normalize the idea that a group of individuals will have diverse views. That’s a strength of a board, not a weakness.
    • Identify any next steps (~5-10 minutes). In this exercise and in general, it’s helpful to end board conversations with an invitation to think about translating ideas into action, and a review of any emerging action steps.
  • Collect the surveys (5 minutes). Wrap up the process by collecting the surveys and reviewing the Board Development Committee’s next steps.

FOLLOW-UP AND NEXT STEPS: Typically, the Board Development Committee will get together within a week or two of the board meeting. They’ll review the conversations and written comments from this exercise, and will develop recommendations about training needs, officer recruitment, and board engagement.

Most of the time, these conversations are a very positive experience for the board, affirming what’s working well, deepening relationships, and revealing new opportunities for board members to help address the organization’s needs. For example, these discussions led one board to form a small working group of those with HR expertise, to research and recommend much-needed revisions to out-of-date HR policies. Another board was overwhelmed by the volume of financial information they were receiving. The treasurer worked with the operations manager to create streamlined financial reports, and they co-led a board training. One group discovered that several board members had experience with strategic communications and political campaigns, so the E.D. convened a board-staff task force to pilot a small advocacy program. And for all of these organizations, board conversations became more open, and board work became more substantive and engaging.

On the other hand, sometimes this process uncovers widespread frustrations, and it can be challenging for a previously passive board to experience conflict. That doesn’t mean that it was a mistake to start the conversation; rather, it means there’s work to be done. As a Board Development Committee, identify one or two priorities, and research ways of addressing them. Keep the E.D. and the board president involved in your efforts, and ask for the board’s support, patience, and feedback as you introduce different approaches to address your board’s particular challenges.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: While each board’s conversation will reveal a different set of strengths and priorities, these articles address a couple of issues that show up frequently: A “Real Life” Board Member Job Description outlines a practical approach to role clarity, Ideas about Board Transformation describes what board members need to succeed, and A Tool for Handling Conflict on your Team offers a way to acknowledge and build on diverse perspectives.

YOUR TURNWe’d love to hear your thoughts.

What are the biggest challenges you face in engaging your board?
What board engagement strategies have been working for your organization?
If you use this exercise, please let us know how it went. What did you learn? What went well? What would you do differently next time?