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The Shocking Truth About Engaging New Board Members

The Shocking Truth About Engaging New Board Members

3 Tips to Building Stronger New Board Members

It may come as a surprise but, as the executive, you are responsible for setting the tone of how your board operates. Right from the start. If you want a highly performing board that works in partnership with you and stays focused on the right things, then guess what? You need to set up the structure and systems for their success and then manage their work. Sound exhausting or overwhelming?

Let’s simplify it for you.

This conundrum became very clear to me as I was serving on my local employers’ association board. We were all there for the right reasons -- we passionately believed in the mission. But we also each had different talents, experience, interests, and perspectives. We rookies were enthusiastic but unsure how to engage effectively. The CEO was astute and committed enough to talk with each of us individually to determine how we could best leverage our skills in support of the association’s goals. That was a smart first step that saved her a boatload of aggravation and time, so we weren’t wandering aimlessly.

Here are 3 additional steps to engage new board members early so they stick around.


1. Assign a Board Mentor or Buddy

I’ve seen this work over and over again!

New board members don’t always like to ask their question in front of a group, or they may not even think of questions until after a meeting and it feels very encouraging to have a seasoned board member on hand. Keep it simple: ask the mentor to sit with them at the first couple meetings or events and get them introduced to others. Perhaps they can have coffee with them sometime during their first few months on the board to see what questions they have, or tell them about an upcoming initiative and provide historical context or speak to the culture of the organization they may not be aware of.

Be sure to have someone on the Nominating or Board Development committee track these matches so no one drops the ball. That would NOT be motivating for a new board member! Bottom line. We all need support networks and being matched up with someone for the first year leads to stronger engagement.


2. Engage New Members in a Project Right Away

This may seem like common sense, but very often we hold the board orientation and then relax and move on to business as usual. In the meantime, your new board members are wondering what’s next. Talk to them about what committee they can serve on most effectively and get them introduced to the chair so they can be brought up to speed.

Think about your board members who are transitioning off the board and what tasks need new leadership or support. How can the new folks step in?

Have you been putting something off because there isn’t enough capacity to manage it?

How could a new member jumpstart that project?

Everyone has a role to play and expertise to add, so the sooner you engage them in work that clearly connects back to your goals, the more meaningful their experience will be. Doing so leads to higher board retention.


3. Mid-Year Check In

Consider hosting a casual gathering of your new board members -- perhaps over dinner -- to gather their feedback on their first six months of service. This work well when the executive and Board President host it together and identify a few questions to ask the group, such as:

"How are you enjoying your board experience so far?"

"What has been the biggest surprise?"

"What questions do you have?"

"How can we make your involvement even more meaningful?"

It may be energizing to see what these open-ended questions reveal! Then compare comments year over year to determine if there are trends to act on. Your new members will be grateful for the opportunity to share, and you’re showing them that you value their insight.


Success Means Engaging New Board Members

A strong board achieves their goals faster. A weak board will cause you grief, waste resources, and tread water. The sooner you engage new members in meaningful ways, the stronger your board will be over time. Start by treating them as individuals and tapping into their unique talents.

What will you do differently to achieve greater engagement?



Cindi Phallen works with nonprofits to build healthy boards so they reach their goals faster. She is an international speaker, master facilitator, consultant, educator and the President of Create Possibility. Using the proprietary formula in her book "The Impact Triangle," Cindi asks the tough questions and is a champion for changing the way nonprofit leaders think in order to transform the world.

For more about how Cindi can help you strengthen your board, visit her website at www.possibility-cp.com, or email her.

Cindi offers advice on board recruitment in her free guide: "27 Places to Find New Board Members"



If you need help developing a productive, healthy board, have a look at The Imperfect Board Member by Jim Brown. This engaging read provides insight into the pursuit of a functional, effective board by looking at the elements of board health often considered to be common sense while also digging deeper beneath the surface.



Cindi Phallen, governance, leadership, board members, boards


Guest Contributor, Governance / Leadership



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  • Hi Justine,Congratulations on your new board! First, I would encourage you to focus on #2 in this blog. Get them engaged in a project/decision making group right away. Since they have strong networks and you're a grassroots org, you probably need some PR/marketing strategies, and perhaps some donor building activities. Outline your most important goals and then discuss with your group what project teams or committees you need to achieve them. Once determined, let them know you need each of them to join one of the groups. You may want to select the leader of each group, but the point it have them involved in the decision versus telling them what to do, then ask them to outline a charter for their work; or at least draft one for their review and response. If you have certain subject matter expertise, perhaps they are more interested in overseeing finances or reviewing bylaws, etc. For the volunteers that don't want to join the board, identify 2 or 3 options for ways involved - volunteering at events, mentoring, raising funds, speaking in the community, etc.
    10/3/2017 5:37:50 PM Reply
  • I have a completely new board. Each person has the skills that is needed to help grow the organization and are ready and eager to help. How do I keep them engaged? Some are involved in other nonprofit organizations as well. Therefore, they do not want to commit to a board position. But will gladly help in other ways. I like to keep them excited about what we are doing at StopGap and they have great community connections. My organization (StopGap) is grassroots, what steps should I take?
    10/3/2017 10:58:00 AM Reply
  • Excellent advice for the exec of a small association hands-on management board. Involvement in well designed decision and governance work systems is the best route for instant engagement of new board members in a strategy & policy focused board.
    7/26/2017 1:05:28 PM Reply

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