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12 Ways to Keep Your Board Engaged By Tom Okarma

Paraphrasing an old joke-

QUESTION: Know how to get a few good directors”

ANSWER: Start with a lot of good directors.

A couple of nonprofit boards I am somewhat familiar with are in the process of losing some good directors by their own personal choice, not due to term limits. This is a shame because both boards do terrific work, and these directors have played important roles on those boards. My take is that it didn’t have to end this way, and the clients served by those organizations may suffer.

I learned these directors are leaving for similar reasons, and it got me thinking about how EDs and board chairs can collaborate to keep high-capacity directors from leaving prematurely. I thought I’d share those with you. Unless good directors are used effectively, you will lose them. Other nonprofits are probably recruiting them right now and are ready and willing to put them to work.

Here’s what I see effective nonprofits doing to keep their best directors fully engaged through their full terms and beyond:

  1. Hold effective meetings. See my recent blog article, Board Meetings That Don’t Bore.
  2. Put them all on empowered board committees, insist on high attendance levels, and let them tackle pending issues one coast, and no one is buried.
  3. Get them off to a good start with a comprehensive New Director Orientation Program and clarify what is expected of all your directors. See my blog article Director a Verb.
  4. Develop a periodic, informal communication loop between board meetings so directors feel a part of the organization and are kept briefed on significant issues. Coffee sessions, e-mail, quick phone calls should do the trick.
  5. Commit to a “no surprises” communication and leadership style. It is hard to call directors in on a crash landing when you didn’t call them in for the take-off…
  6. Collaborate and use your directors; give them real work to do.
  7. Don’t waste their time or u$e them like a checkbook.
  8. Face problems and key issues head-on. Directors are used to it in their work life, and avoiding problems will raise red flags for them.
  9. Periodically remind them how much you and the staff appreciate their involvement.
  10. Focus on accomplishments, not just activity. Directors are there to move the ball forward, so let them understand how that is happening.
  11. Creative tension is permitted if it is not personality- or hidden-agenda-driven. See my recent blog article, Failing Boards-Part 2.
  12. Collaborate with your directors.

I am sure I missed a few, so I’d like to hear what you think.  How are you keeping your board engaged?


 Tom Okarma, as founder of Leaders Vantage Point, helps nonprofit boards and Executive Directors perform at a higher level. 

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