Last week I wrote about boards. In that post, I (roughly) outlined roles and responsibilities of the board in different contexts. I learned this is something many of you struggle with. It is not easy to keep a clear distinction between a board that is supervising and guiding versus the director and the staff team who are implementing and managing. In many cases the board becomes almost too engaged with implementation, which may cause (and in my experience indeed does cause) a lot of problems. But what if your board members are not active?

Expectations

The first thing to do is to consider for yourself what your expectations were (are) in regard of the board. What kind of activity did you expect from them? Or maybe, more precisely, from that particular person, who may have a specific role in the board? What did you expect them to do? For which things were you counting on them? What were you hoping their impact would be?

Communication is king

Think back on your communications with the board when you recruited the members and during meetings. Did you make your expectations explicit? Have responsibilities and tasks been assigned to the board members? Did the board members explicitly accept these tasks and responsibilities, after volunteering for them? Or is it possible that board members feel they have been pressured into agreeing to do something they were not really ready for?

Expectations (2)

Look at your expectations again. Are these realistic? Keep in mind that your board members may not have the same possibility for engaging as you do. They may not have much time to do things for your nonprofit, combined with their other responsibilities for work and family and possibly other organizations. Maybe they face constraints that need to influence their tasks – for instance perhaps tasks that require involvement on week days during office hours are not as easy for them to carry out as tasks that can be done during the weekend or evenings. Consider all this.

Added value

Also consider why you asked the person for your board in the first place. Maybe you asked them because of their creative mind? Or because of their network? In short, maybe you did not ask them for being very active. Their added value may be in some other way of contributing: connecting you to the right people in the right moment. Or sharing insights during a call or meeting. They may be able to easily reformulate a draft text into a story that draws the reader in. Or they may have a way with understanding numbers.

What does active mean?

If their added value is in something other than being highly active all the time, you can also develop an approach to get the most out of their contributions in a way that makes it smooth sailing for them. Instead of trying to make them promise to do things they cannot really fit into their daily lives, you can try to work around their schedules. Appreciate what they can give in these moments. And use these moments to the fullest. Look for other people to do the ‘running around type of activity’. This may simply mean you need additional hands on deck. It may also mean that you look at this inactive board member differently – maybe they have been active, to the extent possible, after all?

It is never too late to be clear

Once you have thought all this through, it is time to discuss this with the person him or herself. Voice your concerns as what they are: first of all, they are your thoughts based on your expectations and ideas. And they are concerns you have for the well-being of the organization. They are not accusations. And they are not judgements about the other person.

Start by asking them how they feel their role on the board is going. What do they like about it? What is challenging for them? Is it what they expected? This may give you a perfect opening to check if your expectations match theirs. And to take the conversation from there.

Transparency

You might want to involve the chair of the board in the conversation at some point, and in sharing the outcomes within the board. Make sure that whatever the outcome of your conversation is, you document all arrangements clearly. Be sure to also agree on what to share (and how) with the other board members.

Want to know more and ask questions?

Then join my Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, fundraising, etc.