People shaking hands after a meeting

By Susanne Pirone

Time. Talent. Treasure. If you lead or manage a nonprofit board of advisors, you’re likely very used to those three words. At the broadest level, these words set shared expectations for what board members are expected to bring to their board position: how much time they’re expected to spend on or in support of the organization each year, what professional talents they’ll be able to lend to the advancement of an organization’s mission, and what level of financial treasure they’re expected to give or get through fundraising efforts.

The trouble, however, is that many board leaders and executive directors don’t take the time to qualify these terms much more specifically than I just have, which can leave board members with uncertainty about their commitments, or not fully engaged with the organization—leading to much less effective boards in general.

At Mission Partners, we spend a lot of our time guiding organizational leaders in building and growing their board relationships. We know that turning friends and allies into champions and ambassadors can be the most surefire way to advance an organization’s mission.  But it takes time, talent, and sometimes a bit of treasure from the organization as well. As I’ve reflected on our experiences from this year, I wanted to share 12 important tips to make more of your board engagements in 2020:

  1. Do your research. Invite participants who have a personal, or institutional commitment to your organization or issue area.  Participants who have had involvement with the issue before, or work for organizations who have supported the issue area through volunteerism, grants, or event support in the past will be your warmest leads.
  2. Recruit for diversity. Build a group of advisors who are different from each other and bring different strengths to the table.  Think of diversity from various perspectives – industry, professional expertise, age, race, gender, background.
  3. Have end goals in mind. How will this advisory board help you advance the mission and goals of your organization?  Build your board with your end goals in mind, and ensure that you have committed people sitting around the table with the skills needed to advance your goals.
  4. Know their role. Have a very clear vision for the role of your advisory board, and be able to consistently and clearly communicate it to current and prospective members.  Draft a volunteer job description for members, and ask them to sign off on it each year.
  5. Make meetings count. Your board members are busy and their time is valuable.  Craft strategic, action oriented agendas.  Advisory board meetings should not just be “report outs” on what your organization has been doing.  Consider structuring your advisory board with sub-committees, where members are in charge of advancing the work, and reporting progress when your group gets together.
  6. Expect their involvement. Members of an advisory board are your leadership volunteers in the community.  They should be present at your events, active at your meetings, and consistently helping you advance your goals and the work of your organization.
  7. Provide visibility. Provide your advisory board members and their companies visibility in as many ways as you can.  List them on all materials, websites, and advertising supplements, as appropriate.  Engage them as spokespeople for your organization.  They can tell your story just as well as you can, and it has more weight coming from a third party than coming from a staff person.  Showcase their companies as leaders in the community, and provide a platform to elevate them as leaders within their place of business.
  8. Make clear, in-person asks. Don’t bury action items and asks for your advisory board in a blanket email.  Don’t even rely solely on mentioning your action items and asks during your meetings.  Make your requests in person, make them specific, and tie them back to your overall organizational goals.
  9. Leverage their involvement. Leverage advisory board members in other ways/roles across your organization.  Engage them at your community and fundraising events.  Let them help you with staff development goals.  Give them a clear role in identifying and recruiting their peers as corporate prospects for your organization.
  10. Seek their feedback. Set an annual time to meet individually with each advisory board member.  Find out if they feel that they are effectively contributing to the organization.  Ask what they would change about the meetings and/or the kind of work they are being asked to do.  Determine if they think they have distinctive competencies that are not being utilized that could be of benefit to the organization.  Solicit their ideas for additional people to bring onto the advisory board.
  11. Have a plan. Make sure you have a succession plan for your advisory board.  Even the most committed and engaged volunteers will eventually need to step down from your advisory board.  New members and new ideas are critical to the forward movement of an organization.  Set a term of service for members, and have a pipeline for bringing new leadership volunteers into the fold.
  12. Don’t lose key volunteers! When a member sunsets from your advisory board, make sure you have ways to keep him or her involved.  This is an opportunity to transition these key leadership volunteers into other roles within your organization.

Above all, if you want to have an effective board, take the time to show gratitude, and not just at the end of their board term.  Small acts of gratitude, such as handwritten personal notes, go a long way in recognizing someone’s contributions to your organization, especially your volunteer advisory board members. Build into your organizational goals a plan for recognition and appreciation of these leadership volunteers.  Together, with the tips above, we are certain you’ll see a more effective and impactful board of advisors in the year ahead.