Engaging Your Board Members

As I shared in my last article, the number one question I am asked by nonprofit leaders is “Where do I find good board members?” You can read here that it’s not about finding good board members, it’s about finding the right ones for your organization. The next most often asked questions are “How do I get my board members engaged?” and “What do I do with these people?” That’s what we’ll chat about today. 

Contrary to what most organizational leaders hope for, you can’t just recruit a great board member, then expect them to know exactly what to do and what your organization needs. They may be good, but they are not psychic. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to put it out there. If governance volunteers are not engaged, it’s probably not a “them” problem. It’s usually a board problem or an organizational problem. 

Let me ask a few questions:

  • Do you/does your organization know what you need from your board?
  • Have you/the organization engaged volunteers in planning?
  • What do you/your organization provide for the volunteers, to help deepen their connection?
  • Who do you/your organization have focusing on the health of the board as a whole and the engagement of individual volunteers? 

If your answers are: no, no, nothing and no one – that is probably a very big part of your engagement problem. Building off of those questions, there are the four components that I believe will set you up for developing an engaged board. Let’s dig in.

Knowing What You Need

As was discussed in the article on finding good board members, different organizations have different needs. This goes far beyond passion for the mission and the time they can commit. Think about:

    • How they want to give their time
    • Their comfort level with ambiguity
    • Experiences that align with your future goals
    • Connections in the community
    • Specialized skills 
    • Their goals for how they give their time

I would argue that you shouldn’t even start recruiting volunteers until understand your organizational needs. Maybe not ALL your needs, but have an idea of what you are asking people to do. 

Get Volunteers Involved in Planning

A board retreat or strategic planning session is a good way to connect your volunteers to the organization. While many organizations conduct very elaborate strategic planning processes, it does not have to be like that. Smaller organizations can’t always afford the time and money that it takes for a complex process. However, any agency can benefit from taking time to have deep-dive conversations about the future of the organization. 

Holding a planning retreat soon after the induction of new board members can provide several great outcomes:

    • Relationship-building between new and veteran volunteers
    • Education for newbies on the mission, vision, values, critical social issue the agency addresses, and the unique solutions the agency provides
    • Culture can be shaped based on how this event is planned and delivered
    • Volunteers will be much more connected to the strategies and action steps that they are involved in developing, than they would be in ones that are simply presented to them

I have heard the concern about brand new volunteers coming to a retreat and not knowing enough about the organization, what’s going on, or how to contribute. My argument to this is that your volunteers do not need to know all about your organization. In most cases, what nonprofits need from their volunteers is an understanding of the community or constituents they serve, business and leadership skills, and lived experiences. If your volunteers are getting down in the weeds of operations, they are not focusing on the right stuff. 

After any good retreat, you should come away with strategies for advancing the organization. Some of the action steps from the strategies may end up being staff driven; however, the goal is to come away with work for the board to focus on. Those actions should be assigned to a task force, an ad-hoc committee, or a standing committee. Again, if the volunteers have been involved in the creation of these plans, they are going to be much more invested in carrying them out. 

Make It a Two-way Street

A Board of Directors is not just about what the organization can get out of the volunteers. It should go both ways. Absolutely, the organization should benefit from having great volunteers, no question. But if you are not investing in them, they will not stick around for very long. 

Some of the ways that I have seen organizations value their volunteers include:

    • Providing a thoughtful welcome and orientation to the organization and to the board
    • Training them on things like: how to be a great board member, the critical social issues the agency addresses, community dynamics, organizational structure, etc
    • Implement a mentoring system to help newer volunteers become acclimated and provide a leadership role for seasoned volunteers
    • Send them to industry conferences
    • Provide networking opportunities with the organization’s board, community leaders, other leaders in the industry, or thought leader on the cause
    • Help them to develop their leadership skills by supporting them in projects, presentations, and community outreach
    • Recognition for their service and contributions
    • Spotlighting volunteer contributors through newsletters or at events

You could also have a generative conversation at a board meeting around ways to help volunteers grow, support them in their personal goals, and recognize their contributions. 

Board Development Committee

In my opinion, one of the best ways to engage volunteers and ensure their energy is focused on appropriate projects, is to create a Board Development Committee (also called a Board Governance Committee). This subset of the board has their finger on the pulse of the health of the board. 

There are so many ways that this committee can impact the engagement of your board. Here are some examples:

    • Establish and nurture the desired culture
    • Plan meeting structure, layout, conversations, etc.
    • Troubleshoot when problems start to surface
    • Have peer conversations
    • Evaluate the effectiveness of meetings
    • Recruit and onboard volunteers
    • Evaluate the board as a team and as individuals
    • Create social opportunities to strengthen relationships

Ideally, Boards should be self governing. With a little direction, this committee can ensure they are moving in the right direction. 

The role of your board is to look out into the community and into the future to make the best decisions they can for the organization and those served. This should be the focus of the work of your board. So often, organizations do not know what to do with their board, so they give them “check-list” items. Tasks to do that they can check off a list.

Governance leadership is not a checklist. It’s engaging people who care about your cause in high level conversations, to shape the impact and the future of the organization. If, after these suggestions, you’re still at a loss for what to do with your volunteers, below are some more ideas. 

  • Conduct program quality evaluations 
  • Examine the impact of programs
  • Drive donor appreciation 
  • Friend-raise
  • Survey – participants, the community, stakeholder, etc.
  • Plan a retreat
  • Hold community conversations around the critial social issue you are working to solve
  • Get involved in board development
  • Host new member or new participant receptions
  • Serve on a future-planning task force
  • Examine organizational succession plans 
  • Review bylaws and policies

I could truly go on and on. There are so many ways volunteers can contribute their expertise of the community, the constituents, business, leadership, planning, and more. It takes a bit of guidance to keep them out of the weeds, but once the big-picture culture is established, boards usually keep themselves future-focused. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to effectively engage your organization’s Board of Directors. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.

Showing Your Volunteers Love

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been dedicating my newsletter real estate to comparing the skills used in supervising staff with those used for leading a board. I believe there are a lot of similarities and things we can learn from staff leadership and apply to supporting your Board of Directors. To get up to speed and read the first two articles go here and here

Continuing in this vein, and acknowledging that it’s Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share some ideas for showing your volunteers how much you love them. Many companies and organizations focus a lot of energy on staff appreciation – which is great! Let’s look at some of those ideas and consider how we can apply them to our Governance Volunteers. 

Some of these ideas can be celebrated during the “month of love”, others you might want to put into an ongoing Appreciation Plan. Knowing that your Board members likely do not want you spending money on them, these ideas are all free or very low cost. A little bit of time and thoughtfulness goes a long way when it comes to showing appreciation. 


There are many ways to recognize staff and volunteers. You get the biggest bang for your “buck” when the recognition is specific and genuine. Nothing beats telling someone directly, exactly what they did that is appreciated, and how it helps. 

In nonprofits we often acknowledge that our donors help us to serve our clients. And we are also pretty good about recognizing our staff and program volunteers for their direct service delivery. However, we seldom call out our governance volunteers for their impact on our cause. Consider recognizing the contributions of your board volunteers. This could be in the form of a social media post, bulletin board in your facility, a newsletter article, etc. 


I think there’s this crazy idea out there that Boards of Directors are all business. Like they don’t want to celebrate the accomplishments of the organization. Take time out of board work to celebrate milestones, wins, and achievements. Don’t just pause and say “yay us”. Make it a big deal. Bring in balloons, noisemakers, and party favors. And most importantly, connect the dots between the work they do governing the agency, and the outcome you are celebrating. 


I know for a fact that staff who work for nonprofits love food! People come together around food. It gives them something to connect around. If you do not regularly feed your board members at a meeting, consider adding this component once in a while, or on a regular basis. Depending on your timing, this will look different from board to board. Be sure to let everyone know if you are doing something out of the ordinary. If you are providing a meal, or even a dessert for an evening meeting, volunteers might want to plan ahead for that.

Sincere Thank You

Nothing beats a sincere thank you. This could be in the form of an email, written letter or a phone call. It’s tried and true, and it’s always appreciated. If you want to shake things up, consider doing a video message, or creating a JibJab type card to make your volunteers laugh. 

Shake Things Up 

Pick a month and shake things up for your regular board meeting. Maybe take it off site. Bring in a guest speaker. Spend extra time on team building. Switch up the order. 

Don’t do this every month, because then it’s not special. Think of things that will increase engagement, allow for your volunteers to grow personally or professionally, or provide opportunities for greater connections. If you’re thinking about trying something new with your regular meetings, this might be a good way to try it out. 

Social Opportunities 

Your volunteers likely serve your organization to help solve a critical social issue in your community. But there’s nothing that says they can’t build new relationships along the way. Bringing volunteers together to connect in a non-board setting can strengthen their ability to work together. 

People are busy and you’ll never get everyone together. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the effort to build deeper relationships with those who are able to make the time. 

Acknowledge Personal Accomplishments/Milestones

Just like your staff, board members have lives outside of your organization. They get married and promoted and have babies and climb mountains and retire. Creating a culture where these things are celebrated is a great way to deepen relationships and spread love. Loop back to the Recognition and Celebration bullets for thoughts on how to acknowledge these things. 

SWAG/Name Tags

Most volunteers do not want an organization spending money on them. So if you do want to give a physical token of your appreciation, it’s a good idea to give it a dual purpose. Give them a shirt to wear that creates awareness for your cause. Provide a name tag so they can be recognized as serving your organization. Acknowledge them in a way that deepens their connection, but also benefits the cause. 

Nominate them for Awards

This requires you to know your volunteers and your community pretty well. Are there folks who should be nominated for citizen of the year? 40 Under 40? For their philanthropic efforts? Or should their company know about the great work they do for your organization? If they own their own business, are there ways to help support their business in a “Best of” campaign? 

Be Silly

Again, serving on a board doesn’t always have to be all business. Adding in a little silliness or light-heartedness can make the difficult work of leading an organization more enjoyable. It also helps to bring out the personalities of your volunteers. 

Consider starting meetings with a kookie question for everyone to answer. When signing important documents, bring pens shaped like french fries. Use clips from movies to set the tone for a discussion. Think “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men or “Show Me the Money” from Jerry Maguire. (The use of examples from two different Tom Cruise movies was completely unintentional.) 

While silliness can create a relationship-building culture, be sure to maintain a safe space. Playfulness shouldn’t shift into pranks or sarcasm. The goal is lighthearted fun that breaks down barriers. 

You may be loving these ideas, but the reality is that you don’t feel like you have the time, energy or creativity to pull any of this off. I bet there is someone in your organization who would love this project. Delegate to a staff or volunteer whose love language is Acts of Service. This would be right in their wheelhouse and will likely energize them. You could even have an Appreciation Committee made up of volunteers, staff, or both. Give them clear direction and parameters and set them off to spread love and joy! 

Anytime you want to visit about how to build up your Board of Superheros, email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call today. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.

Where to Look for Prospective Board Members

This recent article talked about the purpose of the Board of Directors in a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit Boards are made up of caring citizens who give of their time, talent and treasure to help make our community a better place. These people sound awesome, right? The challenge lies with where to find them. Any organization that hopes to survive and thrive long term, must find individuals willing to serve, bring them together, and form them into an effective governing body. 

Agencies often want to know where they can find these unicorn-like volunteers. While it’s true that it can be challenging to find these people, it’s not impossible. Twenty-five percent of American adults volunteer their time. And I would argue that we can grow that number simply by asking people and connecting them with meaningful opportunities. 

This article will explore three sources for finding volunteers. Before you start recruiting, there are a few things you will want to have in place: 

  • First, you need to be clear on the expectations you will have of your Board members. It’s hard for volunteers to say yes if they don’t know what will be expected of them. 
  • Second, establish a process for recruiting. Bringing on a new Board member should be similar to dating. You would not ask someone to marry you on the first date. Similarly, you don’t want to invite someone to be on your governance Board if you don’t really know them, and they don’t fully understand you and your organization. 
  • Lastly, be prepared to put your volunteers to work. So many agencies have Board members who come to meetings and listen to everything going on in the operations of the organization. This is not a valuable use of their time! It quickly leads to either disengagement or volunteers taking on work that is outside the scope of what the Board should be focusing on. 

Even though you may have work to do in creating your agency expectations, recruiting process, and board focus; now is a great time to start exploring sources for volunteers. Since recruiting should be a process, not an event – you have time to work on those pieces while you identify and build relationships with prospective Board members. 

Board prospects fall into three tiers: 

    1. People who KNOW, LOVE, and TRUST you
    2. Those who care about strengthening the community
    3. Lucky connections

TIER 1: People who KNOW, LOVE, and TRUST you

In order to register for nonprofit status, an agency must list three Board members on the paperwork. The majority of Founders know very little about what it means to have a Board. Because of this, they usually ask three friends or family members to allow them to list their names on the document. Having not been given expectations, properly recruited, or assigned meaningful work this group usually ends up being ineffective. This whole experience leads Founders to be leery of this first category of prospects. 

Despite the tendency to be cautious of Tier 1 prospects, this is the very best place to look for Board volunteers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your mom will make a great Board member. What it does mean is that people who understand your work, who care about your cause because they care about you, and who benefit from or partner to deliver your services – are great prospects.

Friends and family may be good prospects if they are passionate about the mission; not just because they are friends and family. Constituents can be great Board prospects because they know first hand the value of your programs. Partnering or referral agencies may have staff who want to more deeply engage in helping with the critical social issue your agency is addressing. 

Below is a list of places to look for Tier 1 prospects. Consider each group and see if you can think of one or two people in each category who you think might be interested in learning more about your agency. 

      • Friends and family 
      • Social groups
      • Church groups
      • Colleagues
      • Former clients
      • Friends or family of clients
      • Organizations who you partner with or who refer to your agency
      • Businesses the agency patronizes

Tier 2: Those who care about strengthening the community

Tier 2 prospects are those who know little to nothing about your organization. However, they are people who are engaged in their community and who actively seek opportunities to get involved and give back. These individuals are the ones who – once inspired – take action to address the issues in their community. 

You can find Tier 2 folks pretty easily. These are the people who are already involved and working to make the community a better place to live, work and play. Every community has multiple places where Tier 2 people hang out. Some of those include: 

      • Service Clubs – ie: Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions Clubs, Jaycees, etc. 
      • Women’s Clubs – cities and towns of any size have some sort of group like this
      • Networking Groups – some are more philanthropic minded than others
      • Young Professionals Groups – our younger generations are very interested in giving back; in addition they often see volunteering as a way to make a name for themselves
      • Community Foundations – the staff at these organization tend to know who is interested in connecting with certain causes
      • Professional Associations – look to the major industries in your community, their professionals will often come together and be looking to get involved
      • Businesses that have a vested interest in your mission and your success
      • Other Nonprofit Volunteers – this isn’t about stealing volunteers, it’s about helping people deepen their impact in their community 

The people you will find through these avenues are excellent prospects for several reasons. They clearly like to be involved. They are often at a point in their career where they have a little more flexibility and freedom to give their time in the community. And these prospects tend to have more discretionary income and influential connections; both valuable assets to bring onto your Board. 

Scheduling a meeting with your Chamber Director or your Nonprofit Business Librarian can help you determine which groups exist in your community and which would be the best ones to start with. Google can also help you see what’s available in your area. Once you have some sources, reach out to them. Get yourself invited. See if you can speak to their group. Work on nurturing these groups into friends of your organization. The people who show the most interest in your work should be added to your Board prospect list. 

Tier 3: Lucky connections

The third tier of prospects come from broadcasting your needs and seeing who responds. Very good Board members can come out of this category, but it’s more a matter of luck than of strategy. Here are some options for attracting Tier 3 prospects:

      • Online matching sites – Board Source, www.boardmemberconnect.com, BoardnetUSA, Bridgespan, Idealist.org, Volunteer Match, Tap Root, LinkedIn Board Connect
      • Flyers – coffee shops, grocery stores, in-house, library, local gathering spots, businesses that promote employee volunteerism 
      • Social Media – agency’s pages, groups, ads 

Tier 3 is the easiest way to try and attract Board prospects, but also the least effective. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore these options. It simply means that this is where you should spend the least amount of time and resources. 

Recruiting Board members starts with relationship building. It involves doing the hard work of getting out, sharing your passion, and connecting people to your cause. Ensuring that the organization survives and thrives long after the founder has retired requires a strong Board of Directors built on healthy relationships. Use these sources to start building your list of Board prospects. 

If your agency needs help identifying, recruiting and empowering effective Board members, I would love to help! Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com to learn more. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.