OK, here is the dilemma: Board members have a set of expectations about what their board service looks like and the staff has a different set of expectations. Is it any wonder that this can result in frustration and confusion that can lead to missed opportunities for your chamber?
Set High Standards
Like many nonprofits, chambers are often so desperate to find board members that they soften their high expectations for board standards, merely encouraging potential volunteers to “attend some meetings and help out wherever you can.” This is simply not effective in these days of dwindling volunteer resources. Your chamber is too important to accept just any volunteer whose breath fogs the mirror! Instead, set high standards for chamber board membership with clearly defined expectations for time, talent and treasure. Put it in writing and hold volunteers accountable.
Clarify Expectations and Reduce Confusion
The most important tool for recruiting effective board members is a job description. Use this tool to clearly define your expectations for board members. Include requirements for attendance at regular meetings and special events, service on board committees, annual financial commitments, governance and fiduciary responsibilities. Use the job description as an interview tool for all potential board volunteers. Post it on your web site so that everyone can see what it means to serve. In any membership association, there is the perception that one must be a part of the “In Crowd” to be offered a leadership opportunity.
Build a packet of information for all potential board volunteers. Include basic and general information about the chamber including mission and purpose, board roster, board operating structure, bylaws, financials, D&O insurance coverage and whatever else is important for a prospective board member to help him/her make an informed decision about joining your board.
Strengthen the Nominating Committee
When several different people recruit board members it can lead to conflicting expectations. Make the most of your nominating committee by setting it as a standing committee in your bylaws. This committee is perhaps the most important standing committee of your board for it holds the keys to future leadership.
Set a policy that the nominating committee is chaired either by the chair-elect, the past chair or a senior member of the board. I’d suggest that you include at-large Chamber members on the committee to broaden and deepen your reach. Include the Chamber Executive as a non-voting member.
The nominating committee should work year-round, starting immediately after the annual meeting to prepare the next slate. First, the committee identifies WHAT skills are needed to strengthen the board, noting terms of current members. Then, it identifies WHO are potential people who can fill those skills, building a plan to get potential volunteers involved. Working so far in advance allows you to involve potential board members in committees to see if it is a good fit for the organization and the volunteer.
Orientation is a Must
It is unfair to expect new board volunteers to figure things out as they go along. It is irresponsible to ask new members to vote on things they don’t understand. Set up formal board orientation for all new members, preferably before their first board meeting. Include review of bylaws, financials and the strategic plan. Update new members on any key issues facing the board’s decision-making. Review expectations for time and money.
Make it an Honor and a Privilege
Indeed. Make it an honor and a privilege to serve on your board. Your chamber’s mission is too important to recruit and accept less than the best.
Now that You’ve Got Them, You’ve Got to Keep them!
If you have worked hard and long to recruit effective and committed board members, it is important to focus on keeping them fully engaged until their terms expire.
Annual Commitment Letter
Although volunteers sign on with the intention of staying totally involved, their lives can change and focus in other directions. What you don’t want is one or more distracted, uninvolved and unproductive volunteers sitting on the board! I recommend annual commitment letters.
Develop a commitment letter that restates the requirements in your board member job description. Include a blank space for the volunteer to commit to a specific financial level. Most important is a paragraph that says “If at any time I cannot fulfill the requirements of serving on this Board of Directors, I will give immediate notice of my resignation to the Chair of the Board.”
Ask every board member to review the commitment annually and sign the letter. Then, if a volunteer has not fulfilled the commitments, the Chair can discuss options with the board member, either to get involved or step down until he or she can.
Get Organized with Committees
Effective board members expect effective board management. This expectation requires the board to operate in a manner that respects board volunteers’ time and talent.
Board committees should have annual plans of work, based on the Chamber’s strategic plan. Board committees should be chaired by a member of the board with particular talent and skill for that committee’s scope and should include at-large members from the chamber membership to spread the work around.
Hold Effective Meetings
Respect volunteer time. Expect board members to come to meetings prepared to do business. Send a packet before the meeting with agenda, financial report, minutes and any attachments that require board action. Start and end meetings on time. Delegate committee discussions to the appropriate committee.
We have to remember that board members are volunteers with lives outside the chamber. It is critical that you have an annual plan of work for the board so members can stay focused. An annual planning retreat allows board and key staff to work together to identify and establish priorities and develop the plans to achieve change. The retreat should include opportunities for fun and team building and should result in a plan of work for the coming year with accountability and time lines.
You Get What You Accept and What You Reward!
Set and keep high standards for board performance. If it is OK for some members to attend meetings irregularly, then why should others make an effort to come to every one? Or if a few make an annual contribution and others don’t, why should some carry the financial burden for others?
Thank You, Gracias, Danke, Merci
Simply handing out annual volunteer appreciation certificates to every board member regardless of their performance may be the easiest way, but it is perhaps the least effective way to recognize volunteer performance. It assumes that one-size-fits-all and that is rarely the case. Recognizing outstanding performance is important to keep the performance bar high. Thanking must be timely and it must be meaningful.
Don’t wait until the annual meeting to thank all board members in the same manner. Find creative and meaningful ways to recognize high performers throughout the year as their performance warrants it. Visible recognition of achievement as it happens reminds all board volunteers of their commitment to the chamber.
But What About the Great Board Member Whose Term Has Expired?
We’d like to keep some board members forever and ever, but it is important to treat all volunteers consistently. You don’t have to lose those wonderful volunteers when their term expires, however. Create an Advisory Board or and Emeritus Board that allows your outstanding board volunteers to remain active in the organization. Find a special honorary position as Board Advisor, for example, to recognize his or her extraordinary commitment.
Effective recruitment, retention and recognition techniques = effective board members. Set and keep high expectations for board performance and hold volunteers accountable for achievement of goals.