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How to Keep Your Board Members Engaged

“Board engagement consistently has become one of our primary challenges,” says one trustee.

We recently conducted a survey of our members — thousands of charter school trustees and staff who represent hundreds of charter organizations nationwide. And what came up again and again, in passionate comments, was your trustee engagement woes.

For many, the hardest part about your board work is, as this trustee put it, “having board members who have the time and energy to commit as members of the board….board members want to be involved but may be committed in far too many other ways.”

We hear you.

Whether it seems like one or two trustees are lagging, or half the board, you feel like you could do more to keep your board engaged. And while early on, your board’s work might largely be fueled by the heroic efforts of one or two founding trustees, this approach is not sustainable. Over time, your board must mature so that every trustee is contributing to the fullest.

But it’s not easy to keep everyone on track and keep your committees going strong. Especially as you grow your organization and expand your board. Even still, you’re most likely certain of this: your board members are amazing people with a lot to offer the kids you serve.

Here’s how to boost your board’s engagement. And put all of that potential into practice.

Communicate effectively with your trustees.

Find a balance between aiming not to overwhelm busy board members…and totally over-communicating with — and so overwhelming — your team.

This is especially important if you’re trying to minimize the amount of interaction your trustees need to have with your staff. After all, your staff have a lot of things to do beyond supporting the board.

Communicate the right information, consistently, to the right people, in a way that they’ll actually use what you provide.

Effective board and committee meetings are vital to good communication {more on those meetings later}.

Beyond that, for some boards, a monthly reminder about what your board should be doing, when, is helpful. If you’d like to try that, check out our annual calendar to plan out your notices.

Provide every new board member with an orientation.

New trustees need orientation and guidance. They need to understand your organization, your board, and what’s expected of them.

For example: a new trustee won’t automatically grasp the complexity of your organization. They’ll need help to understand your organization’s history, current challenges, and future direction.

Typically, the Governance Committee organizes the board orientation with assistance from the board chair and CEO. You may find it useful to add several trustees at one time so that you can orient them together, and so that you avoid constantly catching new trustees up to speed.

Ensure board members know what’s expected of them.

One of the best strategies to boost engagement is to provide your board members with well-defined, written job descriptions that describe their roles and responsibilities as a trustee of your organization.

Make it easy for them to get involved by laying the groundwork, setting organizational objectives that provide a variety of opportunities that cover various skill sets. By having these basics in place, you’ll provide a clear pathway for trustees to use their talents to make an impact.

Connect each trustee with the mission. And with each other.

Make sure that each trustee is engaged in meaningful work on behalf of the organization. Each board member should actively serve on a committee or contribute to another results-oriented project. They should have tasks assigned to them that clearly contribute to their committees’ goals, and it should be clear how those committees’ goals roll up to the organization’s larger goals.

Provide opportunities for board members to participate in school activities. Coming into contact with the mission is key to staying engaged and passionate. And what better way to do that than to see your school’s work in action?

Connect with each other outside of your board and committee meetings, too. Conduct board retreats and outings so individuals develop rapport and feel comfortable challenging one another when the work gets challenging. This is key to a high-functioning governance team.

Run great board meetings. And evaluate your meetings regularly.

To keep stellar trustees engaged and contributing to the fullest, the single most important thing is to tighten up your board meetings.

Board meetings that help boost engagement typically last no longer than two hours, keep to the established agenda, and focus on strategic, future-facing issues instead of day-to-day minutiae.

To evaluate your meetings, give each board member a turn at evaluating the board meeting by sharing observations and feedback at the end of each meeting.

Focus your evaluation on these key questions:

  • What did we do here to further our mission?
  • How much of our time was spent reporting on the past vs. planning our future?
  • Did we stick to the agenda?
  • Was there equal participation by board members?
  • Was this meeting effective? Why or why not?
  • What could be done to improve our next meeting?

Try a no-stress board member book club.

If meetings are a challenge, pick up our book — it’s the definitive guide to board meetings for charter school boards.

Or, we haven’t met a board yet that didn’t think they needed to do more fundraising. These two books below are fun, inspirational, and brief.

Big Gifts for Small Groups: A Board Member’s 1-Hour Guide to Securing Gifts of $500 to $5,000, by Andy Robinson

Asking: A 59-Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift, by Jerold Panas

Make it simple to participate. Buy each board member a copy of the book. Pass them out at your next board meeting. Then, at your next meeting, host a no-pressure, 20-minute book club discussion. You might be surprised at the great ideas that surface.

Or, if you’re not sure everyone will devour a whole book, choose an article to read and discuss together. You could share this article with your board, or other BoardOnTrack articles. Or, take a look at your state association’s website, the National Charter School Resource Center, or your favorite source for board inspiration.

Measure trustee engagement with data, not assumptions.

BoardOnTrack is built to measure individual trustee and overall board engagement with data points like meeting attendance and RSVPs, meeting packet downloads, and more.

With data to guide your conversations, the hard conversations — like addressing a disengaged trustee — become easier. Because it’s not about opinions, assumptions, or personalities; it’s about the data.

Show your board the progress you’re making. And envision the future together.

At each board meeting, review your board’s goals for the year and your progress towards meeting {or exceeding} them.

BoardOnTrack makes this easy with the goals dashboard. If you’re a BoardOnTrack member, just pull up the dashboard at each of your board and committee meetings to make sure you’re tying your board members’ time back to the reasons why they’re there.

Ask board members to think about what your organization will be like in twenty years.

Pretend that you are a visitor to the future. You go to see your charter school(s).  Write down what it looks like, what is happening there, who is there, etc. Then share your thoughts.  Discuss how to create a bridge from where you are now to where you want to be. What is the role of the board in getting there?

Download our eBook to get even more actionable advice, including our seven short-term strategies to boost board member engagement.

Boosting board member engagement takes constant attention.

Following these steps will most likely help to boost your board members’ engagement, whether your board is highly engaged or highly disengaged.

But the most important tactic is not a one-and-done activity. It’s sticking with the focus over time. Ensure that you know who on your board is responsible for maintaining a focus on measuring and nurturing board member engagement. Be honest with yourselves when it’s a problem. And be willing to try new approaches to keep making things better.