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Three Practices for Engaging Your Seemingly Disengaged Board

To break through a nasty logjam of disengagement, Governance Trainer Gary Bagley shares ways to motivate and reengage your volunteer board members.
byGary BagleyonJanuary 18, 2023

In the volumes of advice on how to manage a nonprofit board of directors, I rarely see explicit acknowledgment of the most important aspect of working with them – they are volunteers. Arguably, board service is the greatest volunteer commitment someone can make – taking on the legal obligations that ensure that a nonprofit’s assets advance its mission and also supporting the organization with personally significant gifts of time and money. That’s huge.

Sadly, nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs do not rank their board member’s level of commitment or involvement highly. According to BoardSource's Leading with Intent (2021), both groups gave their board a B- grade. Faced with this issue, many CEOs I know focus on clarifying roles and responsibilities, instituting term limits, and creating board evaluations – essentially inviting board members to step up or step right out the door.

The tendency for nonprofit CEOs to focus on accountability is natural. I get it. Before making that kind of move, ask yourself, “Could I be part of the problem?” Poor board performance can also be related to the lack of ability to engage your volunteer board. And if the current board disappoints it is likely that the new crop of board members is just as likely to disappoint.

The key to engagement is in remembering that board members are volunteers. I think of volunteers as employees who get paid with something other than money. And, for most, that compensation is the belief that they are having an impact. There is a solution here. It is figuring out how you and they define and then agree on their impact (and revisit the discussion regularly). So, to break through a nasty logjam of disengagement, you need to understand each board member’s motivation for service, if that need can be met, and why it has not been in the way you or your board currently operates.

You may have found yourself in this frustrating place because the recruitment and nominating process did not deliver a clear picture of the board candidate’s motivation and desired impact as well as your organization’s expectations of board service. If nonprofit CEOs expand on the notion that volunteers are employees who get paid with something other than money, the nominating process should ensure that the job they are looking for is one that you are offering.

Let me share just three ways (of many) that great volunteer managers increase engagement:
  • They Make Engagement a Top Priority
  • They Recognize Volunteers
  • They Reflect with Volunteers

These approaches work whether the volunteer is in a food pantry, park, school, or nonprofit boardroom. Here are some specific ways you might apply this to your board.

Make Engagement a Top Priority

Set aside at least eight hours per week on your calendar for board engagement. This might be actual engagement, like calls and meetings, but a portion of your time should be devoted to planning or executing on specific priorities for each of your board members. What should you be planning for? Keep reading …

Tip: I color-code all meetings or blocks of dedicated work on my calendar. It makes it easy to visualize how I am spending my time. When I was an Executive Director, my Board-related obligations were purple (no symbolic meaning – nothing about bruises or royalty, I swear). If the purple didn’t add up to at least eight hours in any given week, I knew I needed to pull out my Board list and start planning. By the way, I considered this as separate from fundraising (50%+ of my time, colored in red on my calendar …)

For additional tips to build engaging nonprofit boards, read more from our Governance Training team here.

Recognize Board Members

Regular demonstrations of gratitude increase satisfaction and strengthen the bond between your board, you, and your organization. Just like any form of gratitude, it is the specificity of the acknowledgment that matters, not how lavish the display. Forgetting to mention a board member’s contribution or advice at a board meeting or in a one-on-one is not just embarrassing, it erodes trust and demotivates. If you make engagement a top priority, you will have plenty to thank them for.

Tip: I kept a list of all board members with three columns to the right of each name: “The next thing I owe them” “The next thing I want them to do,” and “Something I need to thank them for.” This worked a lot better than post-it notes or my already-taxed memory. Filling in a blank in any column was the focus of the next time blocked on my calendar for board engagement.

Schedule Reflective and Generative Conversations

Reflecting on the value of service for any volunteer deepens their commitment. There are three topics for reflection that should happen with every board member at least annually: the mission, the board experience, and their performance. These reflections can happen over lunch or a couple of phone calls or Zoom meetings. Most importantly, these are exclusively for joint reflection – no fundraising, no committee to-do’s, no scheduling requests - just reflection. Here’s how you can approach each:

  • Mission. Solicit advice in working through key strategic and business tensions that directly impact your mission. Come prepared with your two or three biggest issues with specifics on how this Board member can help you think through the issues. Most people join Boards because of the mission and will love contributing to your thinking.

  • The Board Experience. Low engagement is often a symptom of a deeper issue. Ask Board members how they feel about the discussions at Board meetings and their contributions to those conversations. Those that seem disengaged often feel unable to get a word in edgewise or are unsure that their opinions are valued. Here’s your chance to hear them out and make sure their voices are heard in future meetings.

  • Their Performance. Don’t lead with expectations but do bring them up. Just like employees, volunteers thrive on developmental conversations. To lay the groundwork for an open discussion, you can ask a board member ways that they feel good about their service, ways they would like to approach the coming year, and how you can support their efforts. If this conversation builds off the first two, you have a real shot at some honest reflection and ways you can work together to make the Board experience a meaningful one for the Board member and the organization.

Tip One: Elicit your Board Chair's support to set up a time for the conversation. If your Board Chair asks that every board member meets with you it’s far more likely to happen. Your Board Chair wants full board engagement as much as you do.

Tip Two: Schedule 15-minute one-on-one meetings with board members before and after each board meeting. Before the meeting, you can answer clarifying questions and hear insights without navigating the dynamics of a Board meeting. You can then be sure to call on board members to add their perspectives when you see they are not contributing during the meeting. These short calls can set the stage for the deeper conversations you are hoping to have by establishing a good rapport and some trust.

Of course, all efforts to increase board engagement should take place in partnership with your Board Chair (your star volunteer!).

Remember, engagement is not static. Every volunteer needs to revisit their connection to the work and their motivation for serving regularly. By effectively managing and engaging your volunteer board you can deepen and grow their commitment – whatever the starting point.

P.S. Make no mistake. Engagement is a mutual obligation – this responsibility is not 100% on you. Next month, I will have some advice for board members on how they can be better volunteers, the kind no one ever wants to lose.

More About Gary Bagley

Gary Bagley, Governance Trainer and Board Coach at Cause Strategy Partners, has over 25 years of leadership experience in the nonprofit sector as well as a career teaching strategic management of nonprofit organizations at Columbia University and Baruch College.

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