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Better Board Business Part One – How Not to Build Engagement

Better Board Business Part One – How Not to Build Engagement

When I was a relatively new nonprofit Executive Director 15 years ago, our leadership team had a great idea for Board Development: (WARNING: Before you read on, please know that this approach had exactly the opposite result from what we were striving for.)

The great idea: Reduce full Board meeting frequency to once per quarter and form a highly empowered Executive Committee to provide monthly oversight. We thought that reducing the number of meetings would help us engage busy C Suite directors by making it easier for them to meet the expected attendance rates. Boy did this backfired.

Unfortunately, our new format communicated a message to Board members that said, “It isn’t all that important for you to be here, so we’ll only ask you to attend every now and then. We don’t really need your input…” That unintended message had the effect of making it easy for our C Suite members, and everyone else for that matter, to put a higher priority on just about everything other than attending our Quarterly Board meetings. Results:

  • Meeting attendance dropped even further over the next 2 years
  • Committee participation dropped at a corresponding rate
  • We lost the benefit of diverse points of view and diverse experience in our strategic thinking, strategic planning and decision-making
  • Our At-large Board Members lost their passion for our mission and slowly dropped out
  • The small Executive Committee became increasingly overburdened

In our enthusiasm to bring on strong leaders, we neglected to consider why we wanted those leaders on the Board in the first place: we needed their wisdom, their experience, their connections and their influence to help us achieve our strategic goals. But our restructuring did not encourage them to contribute any of those things. It instead enacted a double whammy that led to disengaged Board Members:

  • Members at large understood that the powerful Executive Committee would do all the “real” work of the Board.
  • The infrequent meeting format meant that Members at large were less informed, less able to advocate, and frankly, just didn’t have the program front of mind.

Course correcting was difficult. We were a worthy organization with a worthy mission, but we had changed the expectations and the culture of the Board and it took some heavy lifting to make up for that. We were not the only ones to make this mistake.

Over the years since, in my role as a consultant (first as an internal consultant, now as an independent consultant) I have run across a number of organizations that have tried this same approach: reduce the number of meetings to make it easier to recruit board members and empower the Executive Committee to act between meetings. In every case, we spent a lot of time together trying to course correct and mitigate the outcomes.

I have worked with some Boards that are getting great results! Over the next few blog posts, I’ll share some of their practices with you. What strategies have you used to strengthen your Board? What strategies have successfully increased the number of strong leaders on your Board as well as their level of engagement?

Summit Solutions Consulting is serving nonprofit agencies in the Ohio Valley and surrounding area. Contact us!

One Comment

  1. Enjoyed. My experience. ..we maintained monthly meetings (10) while also maintaining strong committees. Seldom (like never) did a significant issue come before the board that had not been vetted by the appropriate committee. As a result meetings seldom ran much over an hour but discussions were always lively.


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