Nonprofit Board Development Series: Part 4

Retention Practices for an Equitable Boardroom

Ensuring your board members are provided with opportunities to contribute and thrive in ways that work for their needs, preferences, and perspectives in service to your organization is key to board retention.  To do this successfully, it is critical to center the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  This resource details what board retention through equitable practices can look like.

Onboarding Board Members with a DEI Lens

Retainment starts at the moment a board candidate is elected to the board.  By this point, an organization has invested significant resources into recruiting, vetting and nominating the new board member.  Now is the time to ensure that your onboarding process is similarly designed with diversity, equity, and inclusion at its center.

There are four best practices your nonprofit can employ to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for new board members, which are detailed below:

Four part Graphic outlining Equitable Onboarding Procedures

By considering the relationships, giving opportunities, and connections that will support new board members, your nonprofit can be thoughtful about ensuring every new board member is supported and feels connected to your mission and board, which will foster a deeper sense of belonging.  In turn, this can promote retention and greater investment in your board by its members.

Tools for Inclusive Board Engagement

DEI-centered onboarding practices are an important foundation on which to build equitable retention processes.  Establishing a truly inclusive board environment requires ongoing work and often some degree of course correction.  To fully integrate these practices requires a long-term investment in order to see change.

One aspect of board engagement that can be a powerful place to invest is the board meeting itself.  Because board meetings are the staple component of board service, nonprofit leadership should ensure that meetings are marked by an inclusive, equitable environment.  We encourage you to reimagine board meetings to ensure they are engaging, informative, focused, and energizing — for all board members.  To foster this kind of environment, there are three aspects of your meeting culture to consider – the content, design, and engagement within your board meetings.  Below are key questions to support your organization in reflecting on how well your board performs when it comes to facilitating inclusive, equitable board meetings.

  • How generative and strategic is your meeting agenda and conversations?
    • How can your board utilize well-framed questions to focus the board’s attention on topics of real consequence to the organization?
    • Are you using a consent agenda to quickly deal with routine matters so that the board is mostly engaged in strategy-level conversation and decision-making?
    • To what degree does the chief executive and management team actualize the input, advice and guidance of the board?
  • How is the board’s work facilitated?
    • What is the purpose and structure of board conversations? 
    • Are there individuals other than the Board Chair well-positioned to lead facilitated discussions?  What different facilitation models might be used?
  • Who is participating (and not participating), and how?
    • How are the Board Chair or other facilitators ensuring that space is made for everyone to speak?
    • Are there board members who tend to not engage during meetings?  How can these individuals be invited to participate in the conversation?
    • What are the unique skills, characteristics, and perspectives of each board member, and how can these be amplified as “roles” that board members bring to discussions?

Culture shift within the boardroom, of course, takes time.  In the interim, there are some short-term efforts boards can also consider to create a more inclusive and engaging boardroom.  For example, engaging in community-building activities, establishing opportunities for authentic relationships among board members to develop, and building bridges across your board can create a greater sense of belonging and appreciation among board members.

Championing Board Members

Another way of engaging board members in inclusive, equitable ways and promoting board retention is to celebrate your board.  Ensuring that board members feel acknowledged for their unique contributions, and acknowledged in ways that resonate with them, is essential to board retention.  This is particularly important when we remember that board members are volunteers who should be celebrated for their service, engagement, and impact.

There are three steps that can help your board champion every board member:

  1. Create opportunities for board members’ interests and strengths.  Listen.  Check your blind spots.  Create space.  Engaging board members on what their interests and strengths are is a win-win; board members will be more eager and equipped to advance the work, and your nonprofit will benefit from their expertise and passion.  To do this, it is critical to listen to board members and fully understand their passions, interests, and skills.  Listening seems simple, though it is worth noting that this step requires us to check our blind spots.  We all bring unconscious bias to our interactions and work, and being sure to not act on those assumptions is key to making sure board members are sincerely heard.  Think back to the conversations you’ve had with your board members – when they shared their motivations, passions, how they self-identify, and how they want to plug in.  Use that deeper understanding to more effectively and respectfully engage each board member.  Then, identify or create these opportunities for board members to plug in.

  2. Understand the affirmation preferences of each board member.  Show board members that you hear and understand who they are as an individual.  Having clarified how to engage board members and having created space for them, be sure to document and celebrate their individual wins.  To do this thoughtfully, identify how to best celebrate them.  Just like we all have different communication styles, we all have different affirmation preferences.  By showing board members that you have heard them and understand some of who they are – instead of assuming, for example, how they prefer to be acknowledged – you are seeing and respecting what makes your board members uniquely themselves.

  3. Ask if it is working.  Seek out and internalize feedback.  Finally, ask for feedback.  Create space for board members to share their experiences, especially those related to how you are engaging them, how other board members engage them, and how successes are celebrated by the board and organization.  Be sure to track this feedback and identify where changes can be made to act on it.

When we practice centering identity in a respectful, thoughtful way and we build upon that through thoughtful engagement and championing of board members, we create a positive cycle of empowerment and visibility.

Building an inclusive environment requires ongoing work and practice.  While there are some quick wins that nonprofits can engage in, ensuring your board is a place for authentic, inclusive, and equitable engagement by all board members will take time, and will be work that is always evolving.  By considering the key steps of board member onboarding, engagement, and celebration, your nonprofit can begin to strengthen its retention practices with an eye towards diversity, equity, and inclusion.