Guest blog by Jeb Banner, founder and CEO of Boardable, a board management software provider for mission-driven boards. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
One lesson that we’ve all learned over the past year is that it takes extra effort to effectively communicate in a remote environment.
In fact, 20% of remote workers identify communication as an obstacle. Consequently, morale can easily fall and more people can drop the ball on tasks. This is especially true for board members, who often have full-time jobs and family to balance on top of their board duties.
If you’re like most mission-driven board officers, you’re determined to see your organization succeed and are driven to tackle poor engagement head-on. You likely tried out a few strategies to boost morale early on and now need some new, exciting ways to capture attention. Even boards that are starting to meet in-person again are planning on offering remote options, meaning they’ll need ways to bring in-person and remote participants up to the same engagement levels.
If you’re grappling with how you’ll reinvigorate your board members’ passion in a remote environment, it’s time to rethink your engagement strategies. Between virtual gatherings, online meetings, and communication platforms like social media, there are plenty of resources and tactics that you can leverage to connect with board members and drive deeper engagement. We’ll cover five straightforward strategies that you can easily implement starting right now. To get started:
- Take time to review basic board member responsibilities.
- Send a mid-month update.
- Rethink your approach to meetings.
- Schedule online social events.
- Show gratitude to your board members.
Your board members can transform your organization when motivated to do their best work. It’s up to officers and your executive director to work together to spark that motivation and keep everyone inspired to exceed expectations.
1. Take time to review basic board responsibilities
As part of your onboarding process, you likely cover basic board responsibilities. After you’ve gotten into the weeds of board work, it can be easy for members to feel bogged down and generally overwhelmed. Obviously, understanding basic responsibilities is an important part of the board member experience. But, after a while, some of the basics can be forgotten. Going back over them mid-way through board members’ terms can go a long way.
A gentle reminder of basic expectations can lift some of the weight off their shoulders and help remind them why they joined your board in the first place.
Boardable’s complete guide to board member responsibilities explains that you can break the core duties down into three categories:
Duty of Care. Anyone who serves your board should take great pride in serving your organization. They must exercise the same care as any ordinary person would. This means actively participating, communicating with their fellow board members, and following through on their assignments.
Duty of Loyalty. All activities and decisions should be done in the best interest of the organization. Board members should put aside their personal interests and place the organization first. This also means publicly disclosing conflicts of interest.
Duty of Obedience. Your board members have legal responsibilities. As such, they should never engage in illegal or unauthorized activities and always adhere to your organization’s governance rules.
More in-depth responsibilities (like fundraising, advocating for the organization, and so on) all fall within these categories, and you should dive into those expectations as you see fit. If necessary, you might also spend separate time reviewing board officer duties, so your board administrator, president, secretary, treasurer, and any other officers can be reminded of their basic responsibilities as leaders of your board.
2. Send a mid-month update.
Most boards meet once a month, whereas others meet every other month or only once a quarter. Without proactive communication in between those meetings, it can be easy for board members to forget tasks and lose sight of the organization’s performance. Then, they’ll feel out of the loop until the next meeting rolls around.
If you’re an executive director or board chair, you’ve probably sent out an executive summary or a board report right before board meetings, so everyone can come prepared. Why not increase the frequency of your reports and send those summaries more frequently?
Every few weeks or so, send a report blast that summarizes important organizational updates. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind to make your reports as actionable and informative as possible:
- Keep it to the point and consumable. The last thing your board members want is a massive email containing every small update on the organization. Give them the highlights that they need to know, such as programmatic updates or the results of a recent fundraising campaign.
- Feature upcoming events. Share a list of upcoming events, so board members can mark their calendars. Be super clear as to which events they simply need to be aware of and which ones they’re expected to attend.
With regular updates, board members won’t have to worry about being surprised if your performance has done a 180-degree turn since the last time they spoke. They’ll have the opportunity to strategize between meetings, combat any challenges as soon as they pop up, and ultimately set the organization up for ongoing success.
3. Rethink your approach to meetings.
Even if you stay connected between meetings, the time when your board gathers together for meetings — in-person or virtually — is when they communicate the most and can really strive for their collective potential.
It’s worthwhile to take extra steps to ensure meetings are as engaging as possible, especially if you’re entering new territory and offering hybrid in-person and remote attendance options.
- Clarify proper virtual meeting etiquette. This will minimize distractions and help keep everyone in sync. Review some basic rules at the start of each meeting, such as attendees muting their mics whenever they’re not speaking, sending a message in the chat to indicate that they have a comment or question, and closing extra tabs to devote their full attention to the meeting.
- Break down the voting process. In-person voting is typically simple enough, whether your board passes in ballots or simply raises their hands. Toss in remote attendees and the voting process can quickly become tricky. Determine how voting procedures will work, so no one’s confused when it comes time to make a decision. Whether in-person or virtual, remote polling tools can help you quickly capture votes no matter where attendees are. Just be sure you can enable anonymous voting for more sensitive issues.
If you’re shifting to hybrid meetings or are sticking to a fully virtual approach, it will naturally look different from your meetings where everyone attends in person. Taking just a few minutes to rethink your approach allows you to adapt to the circumstances upfront rather than risking engagement.
4. Schedule online social events.
Just as building a strong community is important for your supporters, it’s also crucial for board members. Social interaction is a big part of joining a board of directors, as it connects members with like-minded individuals who share a passion for the cause and seek personal development. Not to mention, social connections help to forge stronger relationships in the boardroom, allowing people to feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with one another.
A remote environment detracts from the social experience, though. It’s easy enough for board members to collectively go out to grab dinner after a board meeting if they’re already together, but remote attendees can end the video call and likely not see anyone until the next scheduled meeting.
Sometimes, board members need unstructured time to get to know one another. As a board leader, it’s up to you to provide those opportunities if they’re not occurring naturally. Set up a time for board members to virtually hangout. No set agenda — people just join and talk about whatever’s going on in their lives.
If they need a little push to get the conversation going, you can always have some ice breakers ready. They’ll be surprised at the number of connections that they have with one another and will ultimately feel much closer.
If you want to get a bit more creative, try an online trivia or board game night to spark some friendly competition, a virtual book club to bond over intellectual interests, or a casual virtual dinner. It’s all up to your board members and what inspires them to bond.
5. Show gratitude to your board members.
While board members may serve organizations for a wide array of reasons, most volunteer to serve out of the goodness of their hearts. Just like any other volunteer, send some love and appreciation their way if you want them to stick around. It can be difficult to express your gratitude if you don’t regularly see someone in person, so this step takes a little bit of intentionality.
Here are a few ways you can easily say thanks to your board members when you can’t say so face-to-face:
Post on social media. As part of your social media marketing calendar, plan some board member spotlight posts to call out your outstanding board members. Most people will appreciate the public recognition and will enjoy having something they can share on their own pages. Check with each board member first to make sure they’re comfortable with public recognition, though.
Give them a shout-out in your email newsletter. Your newsletter is delivered directly to supporters’ inboxes, presenting the perfect opportunity to call out your superstar board members. Feature one or two board members at once who have gone above and beyond in their service. Just like social media, your newsletter is a form of public recognition, so check with the individual board members you want to feature first.
Send a thank-you letter. Nothing shows gratitude quite like a personalized letter. Board officers or the executive director should take some time to craft letters to each individual member. Just like you would for donor appreciation letters, specifically call out what good has come from their support.
Pick up the phone and call them. Instead of taking the easy way out, call your board members individually. Talking one-on-one will open up the opportunity to verbally express your appreciation, similar to how you would if you were face-to-face.
No matter how you express appreciation to your board members, the point is that you clearly try. Remember that not every board member will resonate with the same appreciation offerings. Your approach should be tailored to your unique team. If you’re in need of some more creative ideas, explore Lumaverse’s list of volunteer appreciation ideas. With this extra effort paired with creativity, a little bit of appreciation will go a long way in inspiring members to stick around and do their best work.
Succeeding in a virtual environment takes perseverance, the courage to experiment with new methods, and an understanding of what interests your unique configuration of board members. Some methods work universally (such as adapting your meeting approach and sending regular updates) while others are more specific to the group of individuals (such as the types of social gatherings they’ll engage in).
It can be easy enough to use the same old strategies you always have. However, putting in the extra time to engage your unique group of board members communicates that you care about their experience. This can go a long way in sparking their willingness to participate and form deeper connections that benefit the organization. In turn, everyone will benefit from a little extra effort to optimize the board member experience.