There is no shortage of literature on how to run a nonprofit and what the board of directors should be doing. Do a quick search for “grant writing advice” or “board meeting agenda” and you will easily find hundreds of resources. But if there is so much helpful information around, why is serving on a nonprofit board sometimes so draining?

After founding two nonprofits, Musical Family Tree and the Speak Easy, as well as serving on several nonprofit boards, my conclusion is that boards aren’t focusing on the right challenges. The most reliable predictor of an organization’s success rests on one quality: board member engagement.

Development, oversight, mission work, and outreach are all healthiest when the board of directors is engaged in their service. How do we know if we have an engagement problem? What does good board engagement look like? How can we improve it? Here is what I’ve found.

Poor Engagement – Warning Signs

Symptoms of poor board engagement are difficult to identify, because they can be so insidious. They can be as obvious as board members not reviewing a single board meeting document until they sit down for role call. Conversely, poor board engagement can be as subtle as incomplete tasks between meetings. In your organization you might see poor board member attendance at events, insufficient individual donations, lack of ambassadorship, or any number of other symptoms. Simply put, poor engagement is behavior that slows the progress of a nonprofit.

Stellar Board Engagement Signals

Healthy board engagement isn’t simply the opposite of “bad.” Perfect attendance and reading every agenda aren’t enough to mean your board is engaged. It goes much further than that. The most engaged boards I have been involved with have a sense of enthusiasm, energy, trust, and rapport that is palpable. Board members don’t hesitate to collaborate with each other between meetings, accountable to what they’ve promised the board, because they are excited to do so. They feel their work is meaningful, and they are happy to invest their time, talent, and treasure to the mission. Engaged board members make their service an integral part of their lives, and their friends and family know how important their role is to them.

Achieving healthy board engagement is a complex recipe of recruitment, culture, planning, and knowledge. Here are three simple areas to start improving:

  1. Meeting content and structure are key. Before any other consideration, if you have three-hour meetings of dry reporting, it’s hard for even the most enthusiastic supporter to stay energized. The beginning of the meeting is perhaps the most important, and I suggest it contain three elements. First of all, get everyone talking. Having everyone on the board say something at the beginning of a meeting, even if it’s about their upcoming weekend plans, is proven to increase the likelihood of them speaking up later in discussions. Second, include a “mission moment” to remind everyone why they’re serving. At Boardable, staff members take turns researching a nonprofit we work with to tell the team about at our weekly meeting. This is a great way to not only connect to the mission, but also get different people speaking. Finally, try inverting the typical agenda and talk about new business first. Harness the energy board members have at the beginning of the meeting for discussing ideas and challenges. Review the routine reports later on. Your meetings will improve instantly.
  2. Volunteering and fundraising expectations should be clear. One thing we’ve learned from talking to hundreds of nonprofits in our webinars, client interactions, and personal experiences at Boardable is that clear expectations are a key to success. This may seem obvious since we all have practices around this in our work life, but many nonprofits shy away from hard commitments because board members are volunteers. Fundraising expectations should be crystal clear when a board member is onboarded. This doesn’t mean you need to assign an intimidating dollar amount, but outlining how board members are expected to help support development is crucial. If board members are hesitant to do the fundraising “ask,” they can support other areas of the philanthropy cycle such as donor identification, thank-you calls or notes, and other forms of stewardship. Many boards we talk to have found board members are more engaged if there is also an expectation of volunteering with the mission. It doesn’t need to be substantial, but a few hours spent helping on the front lines of your work can help board members feel even more invested in their board service.
  3. Achieve progress with regular assessment. It’s impossible to know your board engagement health without checking in periodically. Take the time to measure your board’s engagement from time to time. This could be a simple quarterly anonymous survey. Ask board members where they feel rewarded in their board service – and where they feel less fulfilled. Board chairs should meet with individual board members regularly to understand their needs and challenges. Be willing to “bless and release” if a board member simply isn’t able or interested in fulfilling their duties to the organization before their term is up. Additionally, conduct some 360-degree evaluations by asking the staff and volunteers about how they perceive the board’s engagement. Often, board members develop blind spots about how they are serving the organization that others can help illuminate. Keep the process as upbeat and positive as possible. After all, everyone is on the same team, and the goal is to make the experience rewarding and effective.

Nonprofit board members have a lot of responsibility, and everyone wants to do a good job. By focusing on engagement, nonprofits set their board members – and the organization – up for success.

Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board software provider.