Getting Your Board to Engage Members
While your organization’s board is not elected to do membership outreach, they do have unique opportunities to interact with your members. Good direction can help them cultivate member relationships, and become successful ambassadors for your organization.
“A good orientation sets the expectation, that in addition to oversight and providing leadership, board members need to be good ambassadors,” says Vernetta Walker, chief governance officer at BoardSource, a firm focused on nonprofit board training. “This helps the association stay relevant.”
The board should already be up to speed on membership metrics from the organization’s board meetings. But they can also be trained on how to actually engage members.
Before mixing with members, Walker says an association should discern what’s most important for board members to know. An orientation will help them understand expectations. This should include a working knowledge of the association’s issues, programs, resources, services, and benefits, leaving membership details – such as dues structure – to staff.
Being visible to individual members can take on many forms. Maybe you have a big “name” or expert on your board that members would enjoy reading about or hearing from.
Walker says associations should consider opportunities to deploy their board members strategically, so as to not overtax them.
“Determine the best use of their time and energy, and the best way and place for them to engage members on issues that the association cares about,” Walker says. In addition, it is important to manage realistic expectations.
Walker says associations and nonprofits can arrange opportunities for the board to engage members at conferences, focus groups, volunteer events, and speaking engagements.
In addition, organizations can host a webinar that includes board members sharing their experience, while also encouraging members to get involved in certain projects.
The board might also hold a webinar discussing results of the latest association findings on membership.
Walker adds that a quarterly association board newsletter e-mailed to members can keep them in the loop on board decisions, and on who serves on the board. Or, if you have a trade or customer magazine, you might consider having a “celebrity” board member in your arena write an opinion piece on it – with your input, of course.
They could also be asked to speak at an event, or be asked to visit a member company.
If you happen to have a real thought leader or celebrity in your industry on your board, and they’re agreeable to it, set up a social media account in their name, from which you can post.
The better known someone is, the more followers and traction their opinion is likely to get, which will engage your current members and gain potential new ones.
Board members can also be coached to ask questions of members or member prospects during face-to-face interactions, and to get feedback. Walker says the association staff can orchestrate what board members should say, and what the association needs to learn.
“While at conferences and events, board members can scan the organization’s member environment, see what is changing, and relate it back to staff,” Walker says.
“They can find out firsthand what is trending in their circles, and talk with members about the work of the association. They can keep an eye on what matters most, while protecting the public image of the organization.”
Of paramount importance, Walker stresses, is that board members do not have any personal agendas.
Different Approaches Depending on the Organization
Walker says specific training on how the board engages its membership will vary among associations and nonprofits, depending on each group’s interest areas.
“For example, an association that does a lot of policy work may ask board members to get briefed on an advocacy issue, then engage members during an advocacy visit to a representative.”
Board members will certainly be able to discuss the association’s strategic direction. “They are involved in those conversations, so they really have an understanding of where the organization is, and where it’s headed,” says Walker.
Board members will never understand everything about an association, to the degree of what the staff does. “When they are elected, we can’t take for granted that they know everything. But I think they should at least be trained to address, on their end, the value of the association to members, and direct members to where they can find more information.”
Walker says that the key is for board members to understand the need for them to play the role of engaging members. “The board members have to do what is good for the association as a whole, whatever the mission.”
That includes being good ambassadors.