Engaging the Board of Trustees

How can we talk about strong nonprofit organizations and building relationships in the community without talking about Board Development?  Today, we remedy that oversight with a guest post from Erica Holthausen of Joppa Communications. I met Erica on Twitter and am so pleased to have her sharing her thoughts with us here today.  Welcome Erica!

Do you remember how you felt when you were first approached and asked to join the Board of Trustees? If you’re like me, you were probably pretty excited. After all, serving on the board is a great way not only to support an organization you care about, but to really make a difference – to have an impact.

Yeah, I remember that feeling. So why is it that six months later, we’re singing the blues with B.B. King?

The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday

If you are singing the blues, you’re not alone. There are hundreds of books, workshops, websites, articles and consultants specifically dealing with board development. And, there are some truly excellent resources available that provide tips, hints, sample policies and tout the benefits of a consent agenda. They help you make the board more efficient. In other words, they strive to limit the amount of pain you must endure by limiting the amount of time you spend in a meeting.


Don’t get me wrong. I think many of the board development resources are incredibly valuable. I regularly use materials from BoardSource and always encourage my clients to adopt a consent agenda. But these tools miss a critical step. Just because a board is efficient, does not mean that it is engaged and passionate. Board development needs to do more than simply manage the pain.

Moving Beyond Pain Management

The next time you attend a board meeting, take a look around the room. Every person sitting at the table experienced that feeling of excitement when they were first asked to join the board. These are people who care about the organization and want to see it succeed. This is not a dysfunctional board. It’s just a bit bogged down in the day-to-day governance functions. Conversations revolve around finances, fundraising and fiduciary duties – often to the exclusion of passion, play and promise. The real question is how to reintroduce passion and play into board meetings.

I know, I know. I can hear a few of you groaning already. Passion and play at a board meeting? Is she serious?

Yes. I am.

Now before you start singing the blues again, let me explain. I’m not going to tell you to sit in a circle, hold hands and sing Kumbaya (unless that kind of experience would resonate with your board). What I am going to propose is that each board meeting start by reflecting on the mission of the organization and the impact it has in your community.

I know you’re a little skeptical, but we’ll start with an easy assignment. Before your next board meeting, ask the Chair to set aside 20 minutes to allow each trustee to share their reason for joining the board. If you do this, and everyone speaks up, I guarantee you that at least one other board member will inspire you with their story.

This is just one way of reflecting on the mission of the organization. But the options are limited only by your imagination! Here are a few more ideas to get you started:

  • Imagine what your community would look like if your organization fulfilled its mission. How would that impact the community? What would you see?
  • Tap into people’s strengths and passions. What does each individual trustee do well? How do they want to use their skills to help the organization?
  • Invite a staff member to share what they do for the organization and why they choose to work in the nonprofit sector.
  • Invite a program volunteer to come to a meeting and share their reasons for choosing to invest time with your organization.
  • Invite a program participant or service recipient to share their story at a board meeting – and always share thank you notes written to the organization.

The goal of these exercises is not only to reignite the passion of your trustees, but also to connect more deeply to the mission of the organization and gradually move the board’s attention from monitoring the past to creating the future. Of course, the goal is also to add a little more passion, play and promise into these meetings.

By the way, just because your board meetings are now energizing and fun doesn’t mean you have to stop listening to the blues. You just have to change the soundtrack. Maestro! A little B.B. King, please!

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As Principal of Joppa Communications, Erica Holthausen helps nonprofit organizations build a community of engaged and loyal supporters, enhance visibility, increase cause awareness and raise philanthropic support. A self-described idealist, she blogs regularly about sustainability, nature, historic preservation, conservation, community supported agriculture and fisheries, good food and, of course, nonprofit organizations. She resides in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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2 thoughts on “Engaging the Board of Trustees

  1. Yes, yes, yes! This is an excellent and upbeat article. So tired of the endless “your dysfunctional board” posts.

    But I’d go further in saying that the board should be talking about mission because this is, in fact, the board’s job. The exercises you suggest are great conversation starters or warmups for getting to know each other and to create enthusiasm, but then on to the real work: is this organization doing what it says it does? Which presumes, of course, that you’re all clear on what it is that the organization says it does, (aka the mission) so that’s a conversation in itself.

    Thanks for your positive outlook!


  2. Thanks for stopping by Alexandra, and for the great reminder–mission centered work is not a “nice thing for the board to do if there is time” it’s the center of their responsibility. It’s so easy to forget that essential truth when we get caught up in the details.

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