For more than 60 years, Global Impact has made a name for itself in the workplace giving sector. Over the past decade, we have expanded to offer advisory services to both the nonprofit and private sector. For our nonprofit clients, we provide planning and pipeline development, strategic positioning, campaign design and implementation, and execution and operations.
Wearing our consultant hat, Global Impact has worked with dozens of U.S.-based nonprofit clients with a massive range of programs, budgets, donors, leadership and stories to tell. Consulting on private fundraising, we’re often involved from the beginning of strategy development and remain part of the team on the front line for years. Those early months together are so critical. This is when we assess the organizational assets that have the potential to influence revenue and brand, and make decisions about where we hope to grow and how. Where do we start? Your closest circle: the Board of Directors.
Board engagement is the collective average of each Board member’s relationship with the organization. It can be quantified by time and financial commitments. It can (and should!) be formally stewarded by systematic processes, policies and committees. It grows when Board members are championing and connecting the organization in multiple areas of their lives. Championing means promoting your organization within the member’s realm of influence. That could be among friends, at work, with their financial advisor, you name it. Connecting means what it sounds like: introductions to corporations, foundations, and individuals with an affinity for your programs and the capacity to give at a desired level. Highly engaged Boards are also fantastic recruiters.
How do you foster an engaged Board? It should be seen as an investment with a staff member who can dedicate at least 50% of their time to manage these relationships. The return on this investment should be measurable after 12 months. When assessing the viability of your leadership to wear the champion and connector hats, here’s what to look for:
- Your Board has a familiarity with your strategic plan and there is an honest exchange of areas of need.
- Board members know how to talk about your organization from a personal perspective.
- There are reasonable, simple, vetted asks made of each Board member.
- There is diversity among the Board, and each member feels confident in his or her unique assets.
- Successes are shared throughout the year; engagement is both an ongoing and expected agenda item at your meetings.
To improve engagement, start by socializing the concept with who is currently in place. Regardless of their history with the organization, you likely have Board members that have dedicated a significant portion of time – and perhaps money – to the organization. Each member is distinctive and offers a wealth of knowledge. You may find the best stones unturned by asking the right questions and being intentional about the time spent with each member.
We understand every leadership team is different, and as such, an approach to engagement needs to be tailored for appropriateness and feasibility. Board members tend to believe engagement is time consuming because of experiences they’ve had in the past – whether that was with your organization or another. The reality is that these folks are volunteers. We have to respect their time and maintain a posture of gratitude, understanding that some members simply have less time than others. The time that has been made available for your organization should be maximized with staff support.
These practical steps can be rightsized for any organization:
- Learn: Do you know why each member joined your Board? That is the best place to start. We’ve executed Jeffersonian dinners, dinners with a discussion topic, as an effective storytelling medium, and it often reveals who will be your best champions in resource development.
- Recruit: Be thoughtful about recruitment. It should be an intentional process that aligns with your strategic plan. The best Boards are diversified over time, and that can mean well over 24 months. At Global Impact, we took our board from 19% female in 2015 to 47% female in 2021. In our recruitment process, we looked primarily for skillsets that were needed as our organization evolved. Over the experience criteria for which we were looking in new members, we placed a diversity lens. We looked for opportunities to recruit candidates that were different from existing members to bring different voices to the table.
- Educate: Take the time to inform the Board of the fundraising landscape, and where your organization is going and why. In other words, assume they want to see the detail! They can’t advocate for you if they don’t know what you need. Make it a point to stay connected to the strategic plan in individual sessions as well.
- Ask: When Board members are willing to open doors, you want them to feel like it is easy and that they can be successful. We use research software that analyzes relationships and demonstrates connections Board members may have. You don’t want your leadership to feel like they can’t help you get to your ‘wish list’ of prospects, so start backwards and look into their worlds. Only bring them vetted prospects, offer to draft correspondence, and share a professional package that they would be excited to pass along. Follow-through is extremely important here; any introductions made must be stewarded. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!
- Personalize: When your Board is ready, create individualized plans for each member. This will take some time and energy to maintain to make it useful. Years ago, Global Impact spent the time interviewing board members and creating individualized plans only to have them fall by the wayside. To the point above, make executing on those plans easy both for the board and staff. Keep them front of mind for board members. Global Impact has always shared our annual goals as an organization and the CEO’s goals with the board. This year, for the first time, we are creating annual goals for the board. This is a great starting point for board engagement. Board members should be able to see how their individual plans connect them to the organization.
Here are a few other tips to consider when seeking to actively engage your Board of Directors:
- Have some ambassadors on the inside of your program. Look first to your Board Chair or Development Committee Chair to ‘pilot’ new engagement opportunities. Report back early wins and encourage testimonials that will demonstrate the simplicity of the process.
- Establish short term committees that might last 6 to 12 months on topics of interest, like technology or program-specific matters. Secure buy-in and counsel where skillsets exist. This builds strong relationships between leadership and staff.
- Vocalize your values. Some foundations are now asking for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements. Global Impact’s staff-led Diversity Action Team has developed a philosophy for DEI that the Board has fully embraced and supported. That philosophy is: “At Global Impact, we passionately celebrate a culture of belonging. We are committed to cultivating and nurturing a workplace of diversity, equity and inclusion. Our work will grow and transform philanthropy, our global community, and ourselves.”
- Create feedback loops. For the first time, in Global Impact’s annual self-assessment survey, we added a demographics tracking survey so we can get a baseline of where we are and set goals. The Nominating & Engagement committee will be discussing the results of this survey and how we want to use the survey results for future recruitment. Since this is the first time we are collecting self-disclosed demographics it is hard to show official trends on the variety of metrics that we collected this year, however we are setting ourselves up well for the future. We look forward to seeing how the board uses this data to diversify itself and continue to benefit from different voices and experience.
Overall board engagement is an evolutionary process that will adapt and adjust alongside the organization and its needs. There are seasons when you need more strategic support from your board members and seasons where you need more financial support. Keeping an eye on those needs and being intentional with the board can only help your organization succeed and board members feel more useful. Additionally, having a diverse board who have a variety of experiences and perspectives can help ensure you have the right team in place to support as those needs evolve over time. Drop us a note with questions on this topic and check out the broad range of advisory services we offer nonprofits! We’d love to support your organization in its unique engagement journey.