When non-profit association board members are elected, they bring a variety of experience and talent to help further the organization. Some board members have risen through the ranks of volunteer leadership while others may be industry figures who elevate the stature of the organization. What can we as association executives do to not only maximize their contributions, but also provide a rewarding volunteer experience? In my 15 years working with non-profits, I have seen boards coalesce and perform as a high-level team and others finish their term feeling like they did not accomplish as much as they could have.
What is the difference between the two? While no single factor typically determines a board’s success, I will review two common challenges I have seen and some strategies to address them.
Challenge #1: It takes the board too long to get going
For the purpose of this example, let’s assume a board is seated for one year with staggered terms. At the beginning of your board year, you will add new board members; at the end, some will transition off. Even if you maintain a strong core on the board, the dynamics (and likely the performance) change.
What can you do get new board members up to speed faster? Effective board service starts with an orientation. Several models and examples are available online to use with your organization. What I find most effective is an orientation that addresses:
- Both the history of the organization and the current state of affairs;
- Key documents like bylaws, policies, procedures, board-staff responsibilities, list of staff with contact information, etc.;
- Time for you ask key questions of your incoming board: What do you want to accomplish during your term? Why did you decide to run for the board?
I try to schedule at least an hour for my board member orientation to discuss the materials at a high level and allow time for Q&A. Typically, I do this soon after the election, often using a video conferencing platform so it can be recorded and referenced again later.
An effective orientation will allow for a faster start and give you information about individuals’ desires so you can better align their interests with opportunities and understand individual dynamics that are being added to the group.
Challenge #2: Leaders have different talents
When you have an effective leader or someone who was adept at managing the board, their successor may possess a different skill set.
What can you do so the organization does not lose momentum? The governance of many organizations allows for the incoming leadership to be named through succession of the chairs or elected well in advance of the beginning of their term. This is your opportunity to understand and influence the preparedness of your next leader.
Several in-person and virtual trainings are available to help you and your incoming leaders prepare for their term. ASAE has an Exceptional Boards course where the chief elected officer and chief staff officer attend together. BoardSource has an online certificate program. Perhaps there are organizations in your industry that provide training programs specific to that vertical.
Another strategy you can use is including that incoming leader in “business review” meetings with current leaders. These meetings allow the incoming leader to be involved in determining the strategy in ongoing projects, so they have the background and knowledge to bring it to conclusion during their term. Some associations do this in-person for a day, meet at an association event or in a series of meetings as their term approaches.
Start early! Several organizations publish quality thought leadership around board effectiveness. ASAE has its Guide to Volunteer Leadership, Bob Harris has a library of templates and resources available at no cost, BoardSource is a DC-based organization with a focus on effectiveness, to name a few. Check with your local SAE to see what kinds of resources they have. By sharing resources throughout the year with your leaders, you demonstrate your care for their development and also the success of the organization.
Invest in your volunteer leaders today to reap benefits tomorrow. Keep your Board’s momentum strong by developing your volunteer leaders.
What are some things you do to invest in your volunteer leaders?