How to Have Your Board Members Begging to Come Back

Russell, my husband and business partner who primarily works for the camping and retreat ministries of the United Methodist Church, made an off-hand comment in the car the other day. He mentioned that he was about to go do exit interviews with two of his board members who had completed their terms and rotated off the board and that both of them, in setting up the appointments, had said that they missed serving on the board so much, they hardly knew what to do.  Imagine, having board members dying to come back on board!

On his way to interview them, I gave him some questions to ask so that we could all gain some insight about factors contribute to their board service being such positive experiences. This is what he learned from these interviews about what they felt was important to creating a great board culture:

  1. Mission: Their board has a strong sense of mission AND that sense of mission guides everything they do. They refer back to the mission in board discussions and when making decisions. When choices are difficult, they consider the mission and how best to serve the mission.
  2. Commitment: Board service requires a considerable commitment. Most of the Board meetings for the organization call for the Board members to drive a considerable distance—to the camp where much of the program is delivered. The camp is located in a rural area, a significant drive for most of the board members. Very few live nearby. In order to serve, you have to choose to be on-board in a big way, committing to travel to the meetings, before you join.
  3. Trust:  Given that the members drive a distance, the meetings aren’t just an hour-long, they are usually several hours or a day-long (held quarterly). The members spend some quality time together. Because they actually spend time together, they get to know each other. When they end up sharing their thoughts on issues, they really understand where one another is coming from. Knowing each other makes them feel safe to share authentically and not just in a superficial way.

If you are a national or statewide organization, you, too, might have to ask your board members to travel a long distance for meetings. Otherwise, you might not.  One board member commented that the long drive before each board meeting was helpful. It allowed him to put some distance between his board service and everything else, allowing him to focus on camping ministry. If your board members only have to drive around the block, consider scheduling day-retreats off-site quarterly or semi-annually for this reason. 

But even if you are not asking board members to make travel commitments, ask them to make commitments in other ways (time, gifts, fundraising). Make sure they’ve joined before they’ve joined.  Describe the commitment in detail and ensure they are willing to follow through. When we tell prospective board members (or other volunteers) that there is nothing involved in service, they give nothing, but when we tell them much is required, they’ll know they have to give greatly.

Mission, commitment, trust – these things made the experience so meaningful for the camp and retreat ministries’ board members that they “didn’t know what to do” now that they had rotated off the board. They missed their board service that much.

Taken together, I think these things meant that the board members felt a sense of faithfully executing a mission they believed in, in fellowship with people they trusted—a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of belonging. These things sound an awful lot like the top tiers of the needs of Maslow’s hierarchy.  If one board can fulfill all 3 of the top 3 tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy, of course, it would have board members begging to come back.

Creating these things within the board culture didn’t come from team-building exercises or filling out board commitment cards (although I’m sure these happened from time-to-time and that they didn’t hurt). They came from faithfully executing board responsibilities, always mindful of mission. They came from spending time together and getting to know one another. They came from listening to one another. No magic. No gimmicks. These are things that all of us can do with our boards.

Take the time to get to know your board members and to help them get to know each other. Put your mission forward always. Ask for and get a serious commitment from your new members. The result just might be a board so in love with board service that recruitment may never again be a problem.


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