I was chatting with a colleague who dedicated herself passionately to organizations as a board member. For many, she had served nine years – three, three-year terms. She volunteered in countless ways for these organizations, introduced them to donors, brought on additional board members, helped with strategy, and much more. After investing so much time and creativity, she knew it would be a letdown to leave the board. But she also understood that it is good to bring in new ideas and fresh perspectives. So, when her terms were up, she graciously stepped down, continuing to be a donor. To her surprise, in several situations, the organizations just dropped her. She did not receive any communication beyond what any donor would receive. In one case, she did not even receive that. She felt disillusioned – and hurt. She asked me if I had ideas of how organizations could keep their former board members close.
This colleague’s story resonated with me as well. I have been on dozens of boards and a couple of them have been remarkably uncommunicative since I stepped down. Some have been great at keeping in touch. Most have just been okay. But I do feel hurt when an organization “drops” me.
So “Yes,” I told my friend. I do have ideas. But I wondered about other stories, and I contacted friends and colleagues who have served on boards about their experiences. I am sorry to report that a significant number of organizations do a poor job of maintaining a relationship with former board members. And the people I contacted had a lot of ideas.
People Who Serve Deserve More than a Plaque
Before going into the how of keeping former board members engaged, I want to talk about why. I feel that if someone has provided an organization with time, energy, creativity, connections, money, and more, they deserve more than a nice plaque and thank you card. As one person I interviewed said, “These people saw everything about your organization, its heart and soul. Then suddenly, they are outside just looking in. You need to keep them connected emotionally.” Even if the board member did not complete their full term, you should honor the time they did serve.
Further, former board members hold deep knowledge and institutional memory of your organization. Their perspective is helpful when crafting strategic plans or onboarding new leadership. Many former board members have introduced donors and other volunteers to the organization and keeping the board member close, helps keep those others close as well.
Don’t Make Assumptions – Ask During Off-Boarding Process
Don’t make assumptions about what former board members want. I had one ED tell me after I left his board that they did not contact me because I had put in so many hours, they thought I was burnt out. That was not the case at all. They made a bad assumption.
What they should have done was implement a formal off-boarding process. They should have asked retiring board members about their board service — what went well and what could be improved. Then ask them how they would like to be involved in the future. They may not know right away, which is okay. Tell them you will check back in six months. But do let them know they can still play a role if they would like.
An important caveat – if you start a program, follow through with it. One colleague shared a story about a nonprofit that surveyed her about how to engage former board members. She worked with them for a while and then nothing happened. That left her feeling angry about the time she spent.
Ways to Involve Former Board Members
Mailing Lists. Keep former board members on your mailing lists at the Major Donor level, even if they did not give at this level. They are exceptional friends to treasure. Or make a unique list for board alumni.
Special Cover Letter. When you do send out a mailing – via email or regular mail – include a special cover letter for former board members that acknowledges and thanks them for their board service.
Early Announcements. If you can, send an email announcement to former board members a day or so before it goes to everyone else with a letter acknowledging that you are doing this. I served on the board of one organization that sends emails addressed to “Board Alumni.” We get a “preview” of the annual report, press coverage, and other pertinent information. It does make me feel recognized and acknowledged for my time served.
Special Events. Hold a special event for former board members. This might be an annual briefing, state of the organization, or insider update. If possible, hold an in-person event – either at your office or maybe at the home of a current or former board member. But for organizations with geographically diverse boards, an online event can also work. Remember that these events are a good time to connect to the passion former board members have for the organization. Start by asking each to share a good memory from their time on the board.
Sounding Board. Use former board members as a sounding board to try out ideas for a new strategic direction, a new program, or even new branding. You could call a special meeting (in person or online) for this, use breakout sessions during a meeting called for another purpose, or reach out to former board members one-on-one. It does not have to be formal with pre-work, but former board members are a safe group to vet ideas confidentially. When one nonprofit on whose board I served for a long time updated its branding, the CEO reached out to me directly.
Committees. Many organizations have community members serving on committees. Former board members can be great contributors in areas where they have expertise.
Institutional Memory. Exploit their institutional memory. For example, if you are planning a capital campaign, bring together board members involved with your last campaign to share “lessons learned.” Or if you are onboarding a new CEO or other senior leader, bring board members from different “eras” together to share the evolving story of your organization.
Public Identification. When a board member leaves, acknowledge and thank them in your newsletter and on your web site. Also, if former board members attend an in-person event, note on their name tags that they are former board members. Former board members can be great Ambassadors – and you can schedule a brief online meeting ahead of the event to give them a quick update so they can speak confidently about your organization’s latest impact. You could also have a table at your event for former board members.
Specific Project: Identify well defined projects that make good use of a former board member’s skills. These projects should have start and end dates, defined roles, and clear outcomes.
Ambassador Role: Make sure your development staff knows which former board members introduced donors to the organization, so that former board members can continue to be part of stewarding that donor. When board members leave, also have a plan for who will take primary responsibility for stewarding donors they introduced to the organization.
Emeritus Role. Depending on the size of your board and organization, you can honor outstanding service by awarding emeritus or other honorary status. Note that these former board members would not be voting members of your board with fiduciary responsibility but would be invited to attend board meetings. I know of one organization that does this for former board chairs, but not all former board members.