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Help Your Board Members Help You

Lisa Tarshis
November 11, 2020

I speak to many board members who are eager to help their organizations. They joined the board for a reason, they feel passionate about the cause and they want to do their part. Yet, they don’t know where to begin.

On the opposite side, I often speak to development professionals who are frustrated and feel they don’t have the support they need from their board members to be successful. 

It begs the question, where’s the disconnect? Why do board members feel disengaged when development professionals feel overwhelmed? Why aren’t the two groups working together more seamlessly and more importantly, how can we change this?

Where’s the disconnect?

In my experience, the disconnect usually comes from a lack of communication. Professionals know they need help and know that board members are supposed to help. And yet, many of the professionals I work with share some of the following thoughts: 

  • I don’t want to bother my board members
  • My board members are busy and I don’t want to burden them or ask too much 
  • If my board members wanted to step up and help, they would

The reality:

Our board members joined our board because they care about our mission and the work we are doing. They want to help and they want to feel useful. They want to feel like they are giving back and making a difference. Board members understand their own limitations (time constraints, requests they want to take vs. those they don’t, etc.) and it’s their responsibility to communicate those. By not giving our board members the chance to step up and help, we are depriving them of the opportunities they sought out by joining the board. 

How can we help board members help us?

How do we put this into practice? How can we articulate what is needed without scaring them away? And, most importantly, how can we help them be successful on their journey with us? 

  1. Clear communication during the recruitment process – To me, the groundwork for this partnership starts during the board recruitment phase. After all, this is the moment we are setting the stage for our future relationship. It’s our responsibility to explain what we need from each other. It’s important to communicate the board culture, expectations and more so that a potential board member can make an educated decision on if this is the right fit. 
  2. Clear board member expectations – You likely have board member expectations in a file somewhere. But do you use them? When I think of board member expectations I think of a document that outlines the responsibilities of each board member. This may include items such as required meeting attendance, committee assignments, donations and/or fundraising expectations and more. This document should be reviewed and signed by the board once a year at the annual kick-off meeting. This keeps the expectations clear to everyone involved.
  3. Board member involvement plan – A great way to kick-off the year with each board member is by having a one-on-one meeting to complete an “involvement plan”. The document gives you an opportunity to talk with each board member about the different ways they can be involved and support your organization and for the board member to communicate their interests. I suggest completing the plan together, during the meeting, with as many details as possible. As the professional, you’ll want to be the keeper of the plan (but definitely send a copy to the board member after the meeting with a thank you). By outlining this at the beginning of the year, you’ll know when to reach out to each board member and for what. For example, maybe some of your board members are very excited to take on a major gifts portfolio while others can be more helpful recruiting sponsors or attendees to your event. The individual plans will help create a mutual understanding of how to merge your needs with a board member’s interests in a way that creates synergy and productivity.

I want you to be able to put this into action. To help you do that, I’m sharing a board member involvement plan as today’s freebie.