If You Want an Actively Engaged Board


How many times have you heard … or said … one or more of the following?

  • “I wish my board members better understood what my organization does.”

  • “I wish we could get a regular quorum at our board meetings.”

  • “I wish my board members would do X.”

If you answered yes to one or more of these, you probably suffer from an inactive, unengaged board. Many boards have that affliction.

The solution?

If you want an actively engaged board, you have to actively engage your board members in the mission and life of your organization.

Sounds simple enough, but in my experience, many organizations want active engagement, but treat their board members as passive bystanders. How can you make the change from a passive board to an active board? Try these 7 suggestions.

  1. Keep (or make) your board meetings active. Don’t make them a BORED meeting with a lot of reports and listening. As a passive activity, listening wastes your board members’ time. When you need to report things to your board, do so in written reports that they can read ahead of time. Ideally, you should spend no more than 25-30% of a board meeting reporting; the balance becomes time to discuss a strategic issue that will help the organization move forward (or not slide backwards). Ask one at each board meeting and watch your board members actively engage in your future. You asked them to serve on the board for a reason; let them use their brains!

  2. Ask your board members to do things. Most board members agreed to serve because they want to help advance your mission. ASK them to! If you wish a board member would step up and help with marketing, ASK THEM! If they say “no,” listen to their reasons. If marketing is their forte and that’s why you invited them to join your board but they insist they have no time, it may be time to replace them with someone who can help. People often hesitate to volunteer for things but feel flattered when you ask for their expertise so ASK!

  3. Keep all board members engaged between meetings. I attended one board meeting where the discussion revolved around their trouble getting a quorum. The solution: fewer board meetings. NO! This board should have more board meetings to better connect members to the organization. Better yet, have all board members serve on a committeeso they work directly with staff and each other (and maybe clients) to advance your mission. Nothing gets – and keeps – a board member engaged like planning a special event, working with a client, or managing the budget.

  4. Select your board members carefully. Know what role you would like this person to fill and why you invited them to serve on your board. Only want their checkbook? Then tell them honestly … and do not expect more active engagement. Need their marketing expertise? Tell them and honestly tell them the time commitment you expect from them. If they do not have the time to give to you, then move on to find someone who can. Better yet, look to your volunteers as your potential board members. They have demonstrated a commitment to your organization and active involvement in it. That’s what you want for a board member.

  5. Treat board members like adults. Expect that they will come to the meetings, have read all the reports and that they will carry out assigned tasks in the timeline promised. Best advice I heard on this topic. Someone once told me that when a board member cannot attend a meeting, rather than saying “It’s OK,” she tells them “We will miss you.” What a different message that sends about their value to the organization.

  6. Provide them the resources they need to succeed in these tasks; while staff may live an organization and its mission 24/7, board members do not. Frequent (not to the point of micromanagement) reminders and data help them succeed. But, when you do not hold them accountable or spend the first half of the meeting rehashing the materials in the reports, you send the message that they do not have to complete their tasks… and likely won’t.

  7. Create opportunities for board members to connect as people. Board membership becomes much more meaningful when you work with friends or at least acquaintances rather than strangers. Provide opportunities for board members to serve on committees together (there is that idea again!), to sit together at an event, or to socialize before, after or outside of board meetings. When you feel a personal connection with another board member, meetings and activities become fun … and you feel a responsibility not to let that person down. Ask your board chair, meet individually with each board member at least annually to find out what they think about the board and their membership on it. They may surprise you with their answers!