Keeping Your Board Engaged Post Pandemic

During the pandemic, many boards naturally and organically became more involved as members helped navigate the crisis. At one level, boards simply monitored finances more carefully. At the other extreme, board members took on operating roles when staff were ill or caring for family. And the pandemic impacted different organizations differently. For some, demand for services increased; for others (think arts organizations) usage plummeted or stopped altogether. In all situations, board members appropriately leaned in to help the organizations they loved survive. For several years, board members got used to being pretty hands-on.  

But what happens now as we move toward the future? In this story, one ED explains how he navigated board engagement as the organization returned to normal operations. For him, the answer was to be intentional, to plan for substantive, generative conversations.

Making good use of board members is a common and recurring issue. I have shared other stories about how CEOs and Board Chairs connect with their boards and create engaging meetings: You can read them:

Board Was Hands-on During the Crisis

As told by an Executive Director someplace in the USA

The organization focuses on outdoor activities, holding events, providing education, and advocating for better policies around our area. We have both a c3 nonprofit and a c4 advocacy organization. I have 15 board members and two co-board chairs, and I get along with them well. We set the agendas for the board meetings together. I joined the organization at the tail end of the pandemic in September 2022.

The board had been very hands on during the pandemic, meeting monthly. Before they met every other month. Also there had not been a full time Executive Director for 13 or 14 months before that. And the pandemic had done a real number on our finances. The board had gotten into the habit of being in the weeds. They were doing their job as board members, making sure that the organization could continue as a going concern. When I came on as a new Executive Director the organization was still in crisis mode. They set goals for me for the next year: I was charged with turning the organization back on, which included getting its main events going and ending the year with as close to a balanced budget as possible. We made it through the pandemic with PPP loans. But it would take a while to get our revenue streams back. We continued the pattern of the board meeting monthly and staying deep into operations, especially finances.

Celebrated Wins and Missed Board Members Disengaging

As a new ED, I gave monthly reports that were very tactical, celebrating the wins of the organization and how things were getting back to normal. It felt good. I was doing these “show and tells.” We did have an occasional problem, but rather than consult the board ahead, I told them after. I would say, “We had this problem, here are the things we considered, and here is how we fixed the problem.” I thought it made them feel good that we were moving out of crisis mode.

What I didn’t realize was that board members who had gotten accustomed to being hands-on, were becoming less engaged. Things seemed okay. There weren’t any problems. Then one relatively new board member resigned. He told me that the organization was healthy, and he didn’t feel like his expertise was needed, which was a blow because he was very smart. He was also a board member color who we were trying to retain. It gave me pause but it was just one data point.

Annual Check-ins Were Sobering

I then hired a new development director, someone very experienced. To be respectful of my board members’ time, I postponed my annual check-ins with the board and waited till she was onboard as I knew she would want to meet with them as well. She was delighted at how responsive the board was. Of 15 board members, ten confirmed meeting times immediately and by two weeks later, everyone had signed up. So, we did this board tour. We asked every board member the same questions: what was working well and not working well for the organization and for the board.

A few board members said something like, “I am not terribly engaged, things are going so well.” About the third or fourth time, I started examining what was going on. I looked back on previous board meetings, thinking about what happened at the good ones and what happened at the ones that did not go well. And I realized that it was just a lot of “show and tell.” We had great presentations from the staff. The budget reports were uneventful. Which is good. But I also thought back to grad school and I realized I had gotten in the habit of making presentations and giving reports but not asking the board to have substantive conversations.

We Planned Generative Discussions

I had been talking to my co-chairs at the same time about moving back to holding board meetings every other month. I came to them and said, “You know, somehow, we quit doing this thing which is basically ‘Executive Director 101’ which is to engage the board in substantive conversations.” They agreed. We were out of crisis mode, and we needed to start functioning as a normal, healthy nonprofit board. But we still needed to engage our board members.

Board Members Bring New Perspectives to the Staff

We planned a different type of conversation for the next board meeting. As I said, we have both a c3 and a c4 organization. The two organizations have distinct names, and we were wondering if we should rename the c4 to be more aligned with the name of the c3. There are compelling reasons on both sides. At the next board meeting, we broke into three groups, gave each a different scenario, asked them to do a SWOT analysis, and then report out. The staff were pretty set on which way we should go, but the board brought up points that my senior leadership team and I had not considered. Hearing the board’s feedback made staff recognize that we did not necessarily have the answer right in front of us.

The goal is to have the board bring their different experiences and perspectives and to ask questions that will help staff make important decisions. If you do that right, the board will be engaged, and the staff will make better decisions. I did a debrief with my co-chairs and we were all pleased.

I think this first discussion was pretty straightforward. The next conversation will be more complicated. We will be sending out pre-work, and we will take more time to set up a good discussion. The pre-work will include a memo outlining the issue plus background materials and some questions for board members to consider ahead of time.

We are going to move back to meeting every other month, so time is precious. So, I don’t think we will be able to have this sort of in-depth conversation at every board meeting. But we can work to make the mainstream conversations more interactive.

The co-chairs, my leadership team, and I put together a board calendar for the year. This will help the board know when we are going to introduce and approve the budget, how we are going to report on the strategic plan, and those sorts of things. Going forward, my co-chairs and I will be meeting a couple weeks before the board meeting to put together the agenda. We will look at the calendar, go through a menu of generative questions I have developed, and talk about what seems right at the time. Then the staff will develop the pre-work and the structure of the discussion.

Lessons Learned

I learned about board engagement in graduate school, and I have a peer group that has also talked about it. But I started not engaging the board. So, a very important lesson is to be cautious about falling into habits that are not best practice.

People do not want to have just presentations and reports, no matter how much they love the organization.

Check in with board members regularly so you can see if they are becoming disengaged and assess why. Ask the same structured questions so you can see a pattern. If the problem had gone on much longer, I think we would have had a cultural problem with the board.

Plan ahead. Coming out of the pandemic also made me realize that we need to think about the future and come up with a framework for deciding when to cancel an outdoor event. With the heat and wildfire smoke all across the country, there will be a time when we will need to cancel. So, it would be better to discuss it ahead of time and be prepared. We need to consider other future scenarios that we also need to prepare for. These are good generative discussions for the future.

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