By Elizabeth Pickard, Consultant for Planning, Program Development and Effectiveness

Our clients and monthly executive director meet up participants are reporting a new, higher level of concern about board engagement in the post-COVID vaccine era. Executive directors are rightfully worried – nonprofits need functional, engaged boards to thrive.

How we meet is a challenge. We are hearing that in-person meetings often have low turnout – sometimes with difficulty even getting a quorum. Online board meetings may have better attendance but feel sterile and disengaged. Board members can feel disconnected from the organizations they serve, leading to rapid turnover.

So what is happening? And what can we do about it?

What has changed: What can you do:
COVID realigned people’s priorities and decisions about how to spend their time. If they aren’t clear why you need them, they may presume you don’t. Make sure each board member understands what unique perspectives and experiences they bring to the table and why your organization needs them.
The days of driving to multiple meetings every day are over. Use the right meeting method for the right meeting. Small groups can have engaging, productive conversations that feed relationships online, while large online meetings can feed disengagement. Mix and match your approach if you can.
Time is precious. Always true, but the pandemic has made many folks less tolerant of delays or needlessly long meetings. Make sure you are using the board for what only the board can do. Make the most their time with a clear agenda that focuses discussion where it is most needed.
Old models may not work anymore. Now is the time to ask key questions like: Do we have too many committees? Do our bylaws require a board or quorum that is too big or too small? Is our calendar, frequency, and duration of meetings reasonable? Do we need a local board so we can be 100% in-person? If we gained distant board members, during the pandemic, how do we adjust to that reality?
Relationships are still everything. Board members most value camaraderie and your mission.

Build individual relationships between the ED and each board member and the board members with one another. Bring the board on site to see and, if appropriate, participate in the transformative work that you do.

We’re all readjusting at our own pace. Be patient and accommodate where you can. Where you can’t, it is ok for people to rotate off the board, leaving the door open for other kinds of participation now or in the future.

A great first step in re-engaging the board is to involve them in helping to address the challenge. Have them set their own goals for attendance, fund and friend raising and other needs. Ask them what they need to be more engaged and provide it if you can. Activate board leadership to call in members who may have drifted. After all, you don’t have to do it alone.