Education & Government
Diana Baker Freeman Image
Diana Baker Freeman
Sr. Manager, Modern Governance Advocacy & Iniatives

Leaders of mission-driven organizations tell us their tips for board engagement

July 2, 2024
0 min read
leaders share tips on board engagement

Engagement of members of nonprofit and mission-driven boards is naturally a high priority. When all board members are contributing their unique skills and talents to governance, their organization or school district or municipality thrives.

Engagement does not happen naturally — it must be fostered and nurtured. Board administrators can put structures, practices and policies in place to ensure that all board members can and do contribute to the board’s work.

We surveyed leaders of nonprofit and mission-driven boards to find out how their boards encourage participation and engagement of their members. The survey had two parts. The first asked respondents to choose from a list of six practices (they could select all that applied) that their organization did to help engage board members.

The answer with the most votes (71%) was “notify about meetings and agenda topics.” The second most votes when to “send messages outside of regular board meetings” at 66%. Coming in third was “gather feedback from board members” with 60%.

“Arrange board member training sessions” was selected by 51% of respondents; 44% chose “gather for a meal or refreshment prior to board meeting.” Finally, 27% chose “celebrate seasonal days or events.”

For the second part of the survey, we asked a question that allowed for open-ended responses: “What are your strategies for engaging your board members?”

Both parts of the survey, the multiple-choice and the open-ended responses, revealed insights into the prevalent ways that boards engage members. Three key themes emerged from their responses on the best way to create and maintain engagement: Communications, training, and recognition.

1. Communication matters

We should not be surprised to see that two-way communication is an essential tool used by boards to maintain engagement of members. Several types of communication were mentioned as being useful, including keeping everyone updated with regular meetings and feedback. Others mentioned board evaluations as a key avenue to helping board members know how they are performing on governance and organizational issues, goals and priorities.

Comments included:

  • “Articulate the mission, vision, and strategic goals so potential board members can see meaningful work they can participate in and influence.”
  • “Board evaluations really help focus everyone and engage.”
  • “A monthly or quarterly summary of your work helps board members see progress and keeps them engaged.”

2. The importance of training and professional development

Nonprofit and publicly elected board members are busy people with many other responsibilities. They want to know more about how to perform their duties better and more effectively. Providing them that information builds their skills and understanding, making them feel like part of the board and part of the organization.

Comments included:

  • “Ongoing education and training really help keep our trustees engaged.”
  • “Provide ongoing learning and development opportunities to help board members grow in their positions and maintain their interest and engagement in the organization.”
  • “We invite external experts to participate, and it also helps broaden our knowledge, thinking and vision.”

3. Appreciation and recognition help with engagement

Board member work is satisfying but hard. They are often blamed when things go wrong, but they are seldom praised for organizational successes. While they are not serving on the board for the recognition, the survey respondents sent a clear message that appreciation goes a long way to making them feel engaged in their work. This recognition could come in the form of team-building dinners and celebrations, which build strong relationships among members.

Comments included:

  • “Ensure that board members know that their work is appreciated and that their contributions will be appropriately recognized.”
  • “Hold meaningful activities to bring the board together during and outside of the board meetings.”
  • “Provide recognition and awards to board members in recognition of their contributions and efforts.”
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Lessons for board administrators

Our survey offers insights from leaders on how to maintain and grow engagement among board members. By focusing on the three themes that emerged from the board leader survey, board administrators, clerks and secretaries can include ideas into their own processes that help build engagement for their board members.

Communication is at the forefront of engagement. When effective communication practices are in place, everyone feels involved. When communication is lacking, disengagement is not far behind.

“When engaging and educating board members, less is more. Offer short, digestible messages that are on point,” suggested Ben Niehaus, Director of Member Services for the Wisconsin Association of School Board.

“When engaging and educating board members, less is more. Offer short, digestible messages that are on point” - Ben Niehaus, Director of Member Services, Wisconsin Association of School Boards

Strong and ongoing professional development and training opportunities are ways to build board member skills while enhancing their engagement and enthusiasm. When board members commit to continuous learning, they set an example for others in the organization.

“Encourage the board to work on their own professional development so that they know what is considered best practice,” said Chandu Vemuri, Executive Assistant for board and superintendent leadership, Sun Prairie Area School District, Wisconsin.

Recognition and appreciation do not have to be big programs or elaborate ceremonies. Board administrators can research national, state, or regional awards programs for board members or community leaders. They can create newsletters and social media posts that spotlight board member achievements and successes. Board members said that meals with their board colleagues made them feel appreciated and strengthened their relationships.

Diligent Community can help

Diligent Community helps publicly elected board members be engaged and more effective. At Diligent, we understand what it takes to build and maintain board engagement. Diligent Community is designed with the features trustees and administrators need to support effective and efficient civic service. Let us know how we can help you.


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