A few years ago, I was working with Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners on their strategic plan and I learned a very important lesson about board engagement. During one of our first meetings, it became clear that members of their board had identified an underlying question that they felt compelled to answer. It went something like this…
“How do we move from a service organization that provides assistance to the poor, to an impact organization that helps individuals overcome poverty?”
The question invigorated and excited this group of people. It fueled critical discourse about the organization’s work and altered how they set policy and directed their time. As a result, the board took action around specific areas including programming, fundraising, volunteerism, the physical plant, as well as devised a long-term strategic agenda for the organization to guide all of this work. Their interaction taught me that board engagement is a direct result of the kinds of experiences members have working together, and that when you are working together on a question that is both stimulating and challenging, engagement is high.
The difference between board members working on an implicit question that is active versus passive is profound. I have observed other boards where the question members are seeking to answer is… “What do I need to know?” This is an important question, but if every board meeting is framed around passively listening for…”what do I need to know?” information begins to blur and turn into a bunch of white noise. Board engagement is always low in these situations. On the other hand, I have also observed boards forcibly moved to answer a challenging question while amidst a crisis. These questions becoming very visible to all involved and at times seem overwhelming. These questions often engender a spurt of high engagement but leave many valuable leaders burnt out and discouraged.
In order to discover the right balance, boards need to recognize the kinds of questions they are answering at board meetings and then become more proactive in developing strategic questions that position member’s skills and strengths to take on meaningful challenges that need to be addressed.
To get started…
Listen for the question – The question your board is working on is probably not explicitly obvious. The question being explored is the sum of the whole experience of the meeting. It has as much to do with how the meeting’s agenda is structure and who is talking as it does with the actual subject matter of specific presentations. To identify the question being answered, you need to listen with your eyes and ears, observing body language and the tone of the conversation as well as the importance of the content and its relevance to the organization’s work.
Discuss the question – Once you begin to get a sense of what the underlying question is, you need to share it with some of your colleagues (e.g. fellow board members, the governance committee, or executive committee) and discover what their perceptions are and begin to discuss the kinds of questions you feel the board should be tackling. It is important that this is coordinated with board and staff leadership, so that your efforts do not come out of the blue.
Make the question visible – With board leadership, begin to craft strategic questions that the board needs to answer. To start, you may need to carve out time in your agenda for a single question to be presented and discussed. Present the question making it visible to all involved in the discussion, provide background information, give them time to discuss it, and develop an action plan on how to further its exploration.
By doing this, the board is able to participate in a challenging discussion, work together toward answering an important question, and heighten their engagement to take on more complicated questions in the future. If you want greater board engagement, you need to seek answers to strategic questions that are meaningful and relevant to the organization’s work as well as worthy of the skills and experience of your board. The Board of Directors of Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners addressed this kind of question. As a result they successfully elevated the impact of the organization and furthered its mission.