Getting Board Members to Do Things

Board members are volunteers. Organizations select them because they have specific skills or connections or because they represent groups whose input is valued by the organization. Some board members are donors, some are connectors, and some are doers. Many fit into more than one category. But what happens when board members say they want to be more involved but then don’t step forward when asked? In this story, one board chair shares her frustration with board members who never raise their hands. She suggests making assignments and taking care about who you ask to join a board.

My advice to board members is to understand what is expected when you join a board and be willing to fill that role. If you don’t have the time or inclination to step up, don’t join the board.   

Board Members Said They Wanted to Participate More…

From a Board Chair somewhere in the US.

I was on an oversight board that was required by law for an organization that provided classes such as adult ed and summer camps to the community. Our charter was very specific: make sure the organization was doing its job and spending its budget wisely. We acted as a sounding board for the Executive Director while ensuring that the organization met its objectives. We had interesting in-depth discussions about budgets, financial issues, and programming. One time we found pro bono consultants to do a market research project. We helped them with their web site. Another time, I helped them with better reporting so they could understand not only how much revenue each class brought in, but what net revenue after expenses was. We met six times per year.

I was on the board because I was part of the Parent Teacher organization. The PTA had a spot on the board. It was also required that people from different departments in the city serve on the board. Being on the board was part of their job. Others were professionals who were volunteering their time but had full-time jobs. We had good rotation with new members coming on and others rolling off as they reached their term limits. At the time of this frustrating incident, I was chair of the board.

At one meeting, one of the longer-serving board members raised their hand and said, “I don’t feel like I am doing enough. I want to participate more. I want to be more involved.” Several other board members said the same thing. I was surprised and puzzled. The person who initially said this was somebody who basically never participated. Typically, it was me and one other person who did most of the work. As this is an advisory board, it was also outside the scope — but great! Let’s find something useful for you to do if you want to do it.

From my viewpoint, it is very important that we help staff, not make more work for them. So, the Executive Director and I met. He arranged for some staff members to have a conversation. We asked them how the board could be useful. We invited other board members to participate.

The staff came up with some good ideas which the executive director and I went through. We worked to make sure we had projects that were well-defined, with objectives and outcomes so people understood what they needed to do. As I recall, one was to follow up on the marketing report.

…But No One Raised Their Hand

At the next meeting, we presented the projects and asked everyone what they wanted to work on. Not a single person volunteered. All these people had said they wanted to do more. I was frustrated. I told them, “I did not do all this to come up with more work for myself. I was already doing plenty of work on the board. Don’t look at me, I am not volunteering. This was not my idea.”

We went through an entire process where they had the opportunity to listen to staff about needs. We presented projects, but they did not volunteer. They just kept saying tell me what you need; in the end, they really did not want to do it.

Lessons Learned

Make Assignments: I said to the ED after this experience, “Stop asking for volunteers. Just assign. You have these projects which you want to get done. These people are on the board who can do them and indicated they wanted to do them. If nobody volunteers, then you need to be more assertive in assigning people duties rather than waiting for them to step up.” It was the same with taking notes. We would ask who wanted to take notes and the same two women volunteered every time. Not a single male in the seven years I was on the board volunteered to take notes. Instead of asking, just say “Joe, you take notes this week.” The executive director was frustrated too. There were things he wished the board would do more.  

Pick board members carefully. Another lesson is to make sure you pick the right board members. You need people who have the time and are willing to do the work you need done. One guy on the board clearly had political aspirations because he later ran for a city office. I think he joined the board to put on his resume. He always came late, and he never had time to do anything. I think he was one of the people who raised their hand to do more. But he didn’t. That’s not way he was on there.

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