Welcome back to the second installment of the GrantMasters Series: Why board engagement matters
In this blog we explore how having a hands-on board contributes to being grant-ready and competitive for grant dollars. I cannot stress the importance of board engagement enough. A 2012 study by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative entitled Engaging Board Members in Fundraising found that organizations who engaged their boards in fundraising were more likely to see year-over-year increases in funding and more likely to reach their overall annual funding goals. Ok, so board engagement can mean a lot of things so on the surface, it's sort of a vague term to throw around. In this post we're going to talk about what kinds of board engagement to prioritize, some tips for how to go about doing it, and what payoff to expect.
First up: How/Where to Engage Your Board
I've seen great boards and not-so-great boards in my time and the biggest difference in them was to what extent the board members themselves were passionate about the mission of their organization and to what extent they were willing to put some skin in the game. If your board is a “rubber-stamp board” (they show up, approve whatever is put in front of them, and leave) you have lots of work to do. That's not the kind of board you should be aspiring to create. If your board is actively participating in various facets of your organization already then you may be very close to the sweet spot of board engagement. Either way, here are some things you want them to be doing (and if they aren't, it's time to start having some conversations):
- Show up for board meetings: This sounds like it shouldn't need be listed, but unfortunately some board members may be disengaged and may not see regular board meetings as a priority. If this sounds like some of the members of your board it's time to start thinking about changing this culture through meaningful conversations about where the org is right now vs. where it needs to be and how they have to help get it there.
- Have Board Orientations & Recognition: At the start of each fiscal year have an orientation session for new board members to show them the ropes of how your board functions, what your org is all about, and to roll out the expectations for board members. This ensures there are no surprises about what they need to do and what the culture of your board is like. But if you're going to ask a lot, you should also think about giving back. The most engaged and impactful board I ever worked with had 2 meetings per year (one at the mid-point and one at the end) where outstanding service was recognized, we called out board member achievements, everyone got thanked, and we all had some wine and snacks (which were donated by a local vendor). It doesn't have to be a big deal, but you should find a way to say ‘thanks'. The board president should be leading these, not staff (although key staff should absolutely be present).
- Show up at organizational events: Presumably your organization has some type of events that are either central to its mission (classes, performances, service dates, etc.) and/or special events (fundraisers, one-time rallies or celebrations). Your board should be at these. Furthermore, unless they have a really good excuse you should have almost 100% board attendance at these. And to take it one step further, they shouldn't just be coming to them; at least a handful of them should be actually working the events as volunteers. Why? A few reasons. It takes some of the burden off the already-overworked staff. It will give them an increased sense of ownership and pride in what the org does. And finally, it will allow them to talk with greater authority about your mission and why others should buy into it, both literally and figuratively. Trust me, this matters a ton for grants and we'll get into that further down in this post.
- Use board committees: In addition to the larger board, there should also be some breakout committees for focus subjects. I would suggest at least having a Finance Committee, a Development Committee, an Events Committee, an Outreach Committee, a Marketing Committee, and an Education Committee (since education is a primary component of many boards). Depending on what type of nonprofit you are and what your mission is, the number and purpose of your committees may vary. Regardless, each fiscal year your members should be committing to at least one of these sub-groups and agreeing to lend their time and talents to furthering its purpose. Appoint a chair for each, have relevant staff sit in on meetings with the committees, and start letting these groups help drive progress in their area. This approach helps build a sense of ownership and involvement amongst the members and gives them a glimpse of the work that has be done to really make an impact. (Not to mention it will help actual staff avoid scope creep since board members are now responsible for pitching in and should have a better feel for the work that their ideas generate).
- Have an agenda and keep good records: You had to know that organizational skills were going to come back into the mix and baby, here they are (see my first post in the series if you missed it on the power of organization). Write up an actual agenda. Stick to it. Assign a secretary among the board members who will take detailed notes, type them up, and submit them to staff to be kept in the records. There should also be a designated note-taker/typer for each committee. This record-keeping isn't just for funsies. It gives board members yet another way to see that this board is built on a culture of investment and for new board members these notes can give some perspective and context when they are faced with new, important decisions.
- Hold periodic board retreats: Every few years you should think about having a board retreat. These retreats are typically in addition to the regularly scheduled meetings, held at an off-site location, run at least half a day, and allow board members the time and space to think about strategic initiatives for the coming years, reflect on successes and shortcomings of previous years, and refocus on what goals and roles. Have a good facilitator come to these to keep everyone on track and well…facilitate these conversations. This person should not be a current board member (and if you can'think of anyone please hire me!)
- All board members should be giving: Ok, some of you are going to read that one and start shaking your heads. I know. I know some nonprofits feel that their boards give of their time and expertise and that's enough. I'm going to challenge you here, though, because most donors and grantmakers don't agree with you. And I'm assuming you're here reading this because you at least want to improve your grants strategy so you should care what grantmakers think about this. Many grant applications will straight up ask you if your board gives and at what percentage. Regular donors will want to know, too. This is where your board has GOT to be willing to put their money where their mouth is. It doesn't have to be much. Even if all they can give is $5, they should do that. After all, if the very people who are supposed to be most dedicated to an organization's mission don't deem it worthy to give to, why should anyone else?
Tips for HOW to turn your board from bored to engaged
- Follow the steps I outlined above for what your board should be doing.
- Regularly talk about why its important to have board members participate in these things.
- Focus on long-term vision in conversations and when asking for involvement.
- Don't just ask them to make decisions. Have them take ownership. They should all have roles with expectations (committee chairs, larger board roles, volunteer assignments, event assignments, etc.).
- Invite them into the office. Let them help if feasible. Give them something to do if they have the time. (If you don't have ideas for this, ask, because I DO).
- Ask them what they think. Listen to their ideas. When it makes sense, implement them. This shows them they are making an actual difference.
- Give them a yearly deadline for making a donation and assign the board president to follow up with them so they know it's an expectation with some teeth.
- Give them a schedule so they know what events they are volunteering at, what functions or tasks they are helping with, which donors they should call, etc. This way it's not in question that their participation is needed and expected and already on the calendar. They can choose what to participate in from a list given out at the beginning of the FY is possible.
Engagement Specifically for Fundraising…..
You need your board involved if you are going to do a great job at fundraising. They should be helping to call on donors each year, they should be identifying and cultivating new donors and patrons for your organization, and they should be giving at least a little money of their own. For the purposes of your grant strategy, you need to be able to list that they are all givers. But it's really more than just money. An involved board also shows donors and funders that your organization is stable. It has real roots and lasting power and the ability to build on its mission. It has a base of people in the community who are excited about what it does. Those are the kinds of organizations and programs that get dollars.
So if you get to the point where you can check off all the boxes on these lists, what does that net you? What do you get back for all this work? No one can say with 100% certainty since every organization's circumstances differ and each year is different in a variety of ways. However, I can say with reasonable assurance that you will get the following results from your board engagement efforts:
- A bigger donor base (and more donations)
- A less stressed-out staff (since the board is now helping with key tasks)
- More excited patrons/beneficiaries
- A healthier bottom line (because again….your board is kicking in and saving you costs on wages, materials, and time)
- A better vision of the future and an actual roadmap for how you will get there
- Better attendance at important events
- Ultimately a better feeling of ownership and involvement throughout the community
- MORE GRANT FUNDING YEAR OVER YEAR
If you need help getting your board more engaged, I can help. I would love to lead a training session or retreat for your board or even just talk strategy with you one-on-one. Get in touch to discuss consulting services. Additionally, I want to offer you a free downloadable board engagement bundle to get you started. You may even want to go through it with your board chair. This bundle includes a board engagement checklist, a board meeting agenda template (also in editable version), a script for talking with your board about giving, and a board pledge card (also in editable form).
Enjoy and don't forget to share this article for your fellow non-profit warriors!
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