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Engaging Your Nonprofit Board

Fully engaging your trustees may be the singular most important work you can do to ensure you garner the full benefit of your volunteer leadership’s passion and commitment to your work. Learn more about how you can start engaging them more fully.

We often talk about engaging nonprofit board members in the organization’s work and service. The premise of board engagement is based upon the belief that the more a member is engaged in a strategic and meaningful manner, the greater the outcomes in meeting your priorities.

Tactics for Engaging Your Nonprofit Board Trustees

Some common trustee engagement tactics colleagues shared with me include:

  1. Writing or calling to thank donors for their gifts;
  2. Reviewing names of prospects or donors and introducing them, going on visits or another type of informal gathering with a staff member;
  3. Hosting a small gathering at their home, on campus or a club for a selected group of prospects and/or donors. The purpose of the event will determine its size. For example, a reception with faculty or guests may include 50-100 people, while a more intimate setting for bringing people together with similar interests and a priority for your organization may be a dinner for 10-20;
  4. Inviting faculty or alumni to speak with a group of donors. Think authors of a hot topic or a recent award-winning alum/us on a topic of interest;
  5. Inviting some of your trustees, along with the president, and other prospects or donors for a round of golf or other sporting event, musical performance, lecture, art exhibit on campus or in your community;
  6. Inviting a trustee to visit a donor with a member of the advancement team - participating in the conversation, talking about the case for support and sharing their passion for the project. More than likely this would be a pre-solicitation visit that may then lead to the next visit with a solicitation;
  7. Taking a donor out to lunch, breakfast, tea/coffee in a more casual setting and getting to know them by asking some strategic questions such as “what prompted you to make your first gift to our college,” or “what interests you about our work?”
  8. Reading a few good books on philanthropy, which your advancement office could suggest, then having conversations with the staff and other trustees so that more can be learned about the steps to garnering philanthropic support. Role playing may also be a helpful activity to build trustee confidence in engaging with donors.
  9. Sitting down with some students or faculty when they are on campus for a board meeting and asking them about their experience at the college. This conversation may be over lunch or breakfast or a panel discussion at a board meeting. This helps a trustee to get to know the students you serve and the faculty who are an integral part of the student experience.
  10. Walking on campus before/after a board meeting and engaging in conversations with students to learn about their perspectives of the campus. It’s important that no more than two trustees take a walk together to ensure informality and approachability for students. You may find other informal ways to learn about the campus and its constituents.

There are many more ways to engage your trustees, including asking them about their interests and priorities and then creating a plan reflecting those interests. It is important to be creative in developing engagement tactics. Consider asking a colleague at another institution on how they are engaging their trustees for ideas.

Nonprofit Board Training and Trustee Mentors

For me, one of the best ways to engage trustees comes with the assignment of a current trustee with a newly elected board member. Sometimes called buddies or mentors, an informed trustee can help immensely in “on-boarding” a new board member.

Recently I had the good fortune to have conversations on this topic with some colleagues. Both seasoned and exemplary professionals, here are two recommendations for us to consider on member engagement.

From Anne Berry, Principal, Washburn & McGoldrick

The first is from Anne Berry, Principal, Washburn & McGoldrick. Berry shared that while serving as vice president for advancement at Lebanon Valley College, the board governance committee launched a new trustee mentorship program. New members were matched with specially chosen more senior board members who served as their mentor for the first year of board membership. Care was taken to ensure that the mentor and new board member had some committee assignments in common. A kickoff dinner was held during new trustee orientation specifically for mentors, mentees, the board chair, the board development committee chair, and the President. The dinner was an opportunity to meet more board members and to outline the purpose and goals of the mentorship program.

The mentors agreed in advance to a fairly prescribed set of expectations for the relationship and tasks, including pre-meeting calls between the mentor and the new board member to discuss the upcoming board meeting agenda and make plans to meet during the meeting. As the year progressed, calls/contacts were added to debrief on the meeting just completed and discuss items of interest to the mentee and answer questions. Then, at the end of the first year, the new trustees completed a confidential, written evaluation of the program that was shared with the board development committee and participated in a final private dinner with the board chair and the chair of board development committee to evaluate the program’s success against the original goals.

During COVID, many institutions flipped the model and prepared pre-recorded videos on specific subjects (finance, the admissions process, the budget process) and then held private Zooms meetings to discuss the content.

From Trish Jackson, the Chief Advancement Officer at Northfield Mount Hermon School

Another colleague, Trish Jackson, the Chief Advancement Officer at Northfield Mount Hermon School, talked about her alma mater, Scripps College. They do a terrific job with new trustee orientation by including it at the beginning of the board meeting in March, prior to them beginning their full term in July. The half-day session is open to all trustees and is frequently attended by many who want the review and chance to meet new trustees.

She also shared that she appreciates the Scripps Board “Report Card.” As a trustee, she always receives an annual report from the Chair of Governance Committee that notes her attendance and participation in meetings as well as philanthropic activity and any special service to the institution.

While at Smith, where she served as Vice President for Advancement, she and her colleagues instituted tailored Annual Advancement Assignment Plans for each trustee which were reviewed quarterly with them by senior member of the advancement staff. And, while the details were only shared with Governance Committee, she was frequently asked during meetings related to reappointments if trustees had performed effectively in their advancement work.

The on-boarding of new trustees at these institutions can only benefit the organization as trustees learn more and can contribute more effectively and earlier in their tenure. Additionally, the trustees learn early on that trusteeship is a very important responsibility and must be taken seriously.

The descriptions of these programs at Scripps and Smith recognize the importance of on-going development. Here, members are more engaged and are far more valued leaders of the institution.

Board governance is the single most significant role of the board for trustees. It informs who will be on the board and the significance of their role in leading the institution. A thoughtful and thorough Board engagement program will ensure that you leverage the full value of your governing leaders.

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