July 17, 2003

Advice for Keeping Board Members Motivated Over the Long Haul


After three years of serving on the board of a mental-health center near her home in northern Ohio, Mary Mihaly felt her enthusiasm sputtering. Then serving as vice president and being groomed for the presidency, she was "terrified," she says.

"Most of what I did involved rubber-stamping staff decisions," Ms. Mihaly recalls. "I felt I'd been kept uninformed. Also, after all that time, I'd done nothing but attend meetings -- never once did I engage with a mentally challenged person. That's my fault, too, of course, but as board members, we saw clients only at a distance." Her work responsibilities outside of the organization were piling up and, with the rewards of board service diminishing for her, she resigned.

Nonprofit organizations, particularly small- and medium-size charities, can't afford to lose trustees like Ms. Mihaly to diminished enthusiasm. Recent figures show a nationwide shortage of board members: Nearly 1.8 million board seats become available each year, according to a study conducted last year by the management-consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. That's in addition to the backlog of 1.2 million nonprofit board seats that have been open for more than one year, which the survey also revealed.

The study also found that more than two-thirds of nonprofit organizations use term limits for board service, so board members' waning commitment may have less to do with length of service than with other factors. Time has little to do with burnout, say trustees and charity leaders.

"Don't assume people are falling away because they're not personally motivated," says Joyce Hollingsworth, a board-development consultant in Michigan City, Ind. Flaws in the way an organization is managed can also turn board members off, she says.

One of the most common such problems is a new-trustee orientation that doesn't include an accurate portrayal of what is expected of board members. "Flagging enthusiasm often comes from good adults who feel they've been had," says Don Wells, director of the Duke University certificate program in nonprofit management. "All of a sudden, the obligation you thought you were signing up for has grown enormously, and in fact, you don't have time to do all of these things. You feel you were set up to fail." After a solid orientation , charities use numerous approaches to keeping board members excited.

Finding Meaning

"Meaningful work is probably the leading way to keep board members involved -- meaningful for them," says Jim Vaillancourt, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Management, in Nashville, which provides training and consultation to nonprofit organizations in the middle Tennessee area. Board leaders, he says, should regularly ask trustees what their interests are and try to match them with the organization's needs.

Ms. Hollingsworth, an avid gardener, uses a horticulture analogy to describe the process: "It's like moving a plant that's not thriving. It may need more light or water; it may do better in another spot. Help board members think through how else they can serve so that they thrive."

The board of Creative Time, a nonprofit group in New York City that presents public-arts projects, instituted self-evaluations this past year to gauge its trustees' perception of their own participation and interest, says Tom Healy, the board's chairman.

"We ask everyone to write down what their own sense of their participation has been in the past year, what strengths they thought they brought to the board, as well as any weaknesses," he says. "This way, it's not an imposed evaluation from other members; it's not meant to feel awkward. And you get some surprising results from those you think you know and have been involving in the right way."

Through the self-evaluations, Mr. Healy discovered that a board member who had successfully planned fund-raising parties for the group didn't really enjoy it.

"It was probably somewhat wishful thinking on our parts, to think something someone was good at was also the most important skill she wanted to contribute," he says. To accommodate the trustee's wish to try other things, the group assigned her to serve on the executive committee, while retaining her as a party planner.

Providing Support

A board leader needs to serve as "chief cheerleader, and chief motivator," says Mr. Vaillancourt, by finding time on meeting agendas to celebrate trustees' personal or board-related successes. Outside of meetings, the chairman or chairwoman can provide support and encouragement to board members who are working on assignments by asking what resources would be helpful -- a workshop, for instance, or additional time with the executive director.

Linda Montgomery, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, in Mississippi, reserves every Wednesday morning for an hour-long breakfast with her board chairman to discuss their group's present and future -- and strategize about keeping trustees engaged. The idea was inspired by a mentor of Ms. Montgomery's, and it is now a five-year-old tradition, as long as her tenure with the foundation. "As a result, I end up forming a strong, close bond with each chairman," she says, "and we discuss things openly."

At one recent meeting, the two discussed the role of a relatively new trustee -- one who is a great fund raiser, but who Ms. Montgomery sensed was "burned out" because he was doing similar work for other organizations. The board member also has investment expertise, so she and the chairman asked the trustee to serve on the investment committee instead of the development committee. "He hasn't complained once," she says. "We hope he'll want to stick with us, get more and more interested and involved, and eventually raise money for us."

Revamping Meetings

Like inappropriate assignments, tedious meetings can also sap trustees' enthusiasm. The Creative Time board recently changed the frequency and content of its board meetings, in an effort to keep members motivated. The board only meets four times a year now, down from eight, according to Mr. Healy. More work is delegated to committees, which now only raise issues at board meetings that require board action, rather than report on what they have done or plan to do. "Committee reports only function to solve problems now. If there's no board decision required, there's no report. Updating members can be done through e-mail and written materials. It's subtle, but it's a shift in thinking from passive reporting to engaging all members at meetings."

And it seems to be working. Mr. Healy reports greater attendance at meetings, and is receiving feedback that they are more productive and interesting. Also, he says, "I have the feeling that members understand the issues more than if they'd just heard a report."

Mr. Healy also makes sure that board meetings don't stretch beyond 90 minutes, and keeps the agenda unpredictable to encourage attendance. Members are briefed in advance about the issues slated for discussion, but they may not know exactly when staff members will give their presentation, for instance. "No one can feel, 'Oh, I know we won't start on time, so I can come late, ' or 'The last half-hour is always dull, so I can leave early, '" he says. Sometimes he and staff members who are slated to give presentations will rehearse their talks. "It's not as though it's staged, but well thought out," he says. "It may sound silly to think about these details, but they end up being symbols for a real sense of active engagement and respect for board members and their time."

Mr. Wells of Duke University wouldn't mind seeing the standing-committee model disbanded altogether. The alternative, he says, would be task forces, working groups, and ad hoc committees, which disband when their work is done. Such smaller, temporary groups serve as "an impetus to get together and do it," he says, "as opposed to the notion that the committee will just exist until its members die."

Connecting to the Mission

In addition to its four annual board meetings, Creative Time trustees gather at different members' homes four times a year. Over dinner, they meet artists with whom the organization works. Business issues are set aside. The events are "solely about the intellectual and creative involvement of the board," says Mr. Healy, who adds that board leaders and executive directors should never assume trustees are familiar with their organization's day-to-day projects.

Charity leaders need to help board members connect to their group's mission, says Ms. Hollingsworth. "If a member is on the development committee, invite him to visit a corporation or foundation with you to help raise money," she says. "Invite a member on the program committee to an activity with clients. If someone's on the marketing committee and you're hiring a marketing consultant, have them make a direct connection so you as chair or the executive director aren't doing all the translating." That said, Ms. Hollingsworth cautions, "make sure it happens through you. Sometimes it can disintegrate into board members meddling in operations. You want to know when communication is happening -- two or three times a year is how I envision it -- and you want to hear from staff regularly about whether the contact is helpful."

When Ms. Montgomery arrived at the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson in 1997, she was the fourth executive director in as many years.

"I learned pretty quickly that my board wanted to know what I was doing," she says. "So I e-mailed or faxed them a newsy summary every other week or so, telling them what I'd be busy doing."

The updates were a hit, she says. Trustees told her that they had never before felt as knowledgeable about or connected to an organization on whose boards they had served. Their sense of involvement shows, she says: "They've almost all continued, year after year, to attend meetings faithfully and do anything I ask of them." In addition, she says, the entire board supports the foundation's annual fund.

Communication is especially critical to keeping trustees motivated during times of crisis. When Virgil Carr, head of United Way Community Services, in Detroit, died of a stroke this past May, the group's board members needed to find an interim leader, says John Bava, the board's treasurer. In the days following Mr. Carr's death, the organization's group vice president of marketing and communications frequently phoned executive-committee members and sent written updates to all trustees. When she issued press releases, she sent them to board members before sending them to the news media. Despite the tragedy, says Mr. Bava, the close communication helped keep the board focused on the future -- and determined to carry on the legacy of the group's late leader.

Letting Go

Mr. Healy says he has heard complaints of "dead wood" on nonprofit boards, but cautions that such situations are rarely clear cut.

"You can't take relationships for granted," he says. "A board is like a family -- it needs care and feeding and cooperation all the time, from everyone."

That's part of the reason why the Creative Time board also recently instituted mandatory rotation for trustees after they serve two consecutive two-year terms. After that time, members have to leave the board for at least one year -- though the board can vote to make exceptions for committee heads and officers. There's a risk, acknowledges Mr. Healy, that after a year trustees who leave won't be available or willing to come back. But "people can't go that long without rejuvenation," he notes. "They need to rest."

Not letting a board member who's burned out leave dispirits the entire group, says Mr. Wells, who has often heard board leaders say to weary trustees, "'We know you're busy, but we'd still like you on the board. After all, you're so-and-so.' That person slides, and the rest of the board does the work."

Ms. Hollingsworth uses another gardening metaphor: pruning. "Lifestyles change," she says. "People have personal crises. They become overloaded at work, and they can't take on any more. Give them permission to leave." But not, she adds, without doing an exit interview to find out what they felt their contributions were and their thoughts about how the board could improve. (Such interviews, she suggests, should also be attended by the head of the nominating committee.) "Often when people leave because they were overwhelmed, they feel like they failed in their commitment. Do your due diligence so they can leave feeling that they contributed."

Maintain perspective too, Mr. Wells recommends. "Missions can be very ambitious, proposing solutions to extremely complex and multifaceted challenges," he notes. "It's easy to become more and more dour because you haven't achieved world peace yet or solved the worldwide housing crisis. It's probably not going to happen on your watch, but you will make progress. There's a strategic need to keep perspective -- it keeps people healthy in their work."

How does your group keep its trustees motivated?