QUESTION: Boards are made up of individuals with different areas of expertise and experience. What strategies have you used to effectively engage all board members?
Leanne Kaplan, Chair, Committee on Trustees, Atlanta Jewish Academy
At our school, board engagement is a top priority. The team who wrote the first set of by-laws were already thinking about board member engagement when it was decided to keep the board of trustees limited to between 12 and 18 members. This size gives everyone a chance to have his/her voice heard at meetings.
Once a new trustee accepts his/her position on the board, a new trustee orientation is set up. It serves as an opportunity for the new trustees to meet each other and get “up to speed” on board business. The other important fall board event is the annual board retreat. This is a time for the whole board to come together to establish goals for the year and begin the board development process so essential to board engagement.
Our board of trustees meets monthly, and between meetings valuable information is shared electronically. This effort at continuous communication helps keep all board members in the loop and keeps board “homework” top of mind. Lastly, every board member serves as either a chair of or member of a committee. We strive to use committees to keep the work of the board moving and create space for leadership development.
The AJA Board of Trustees values the time and energy every member gives. Keeping board members engaged is the driving force for the way we communicate and our committee structure.
Lesley Zafran, Past President of Donna Klein Jewish Academy, Boca Raton, Florida, and Governance & Strategic Planning Consultant
Although board members have different areas of expertise and experience and different motivations, they all join your school board for one overarching reason: They have an interest in the school’s success.
This shared interest can be used to leverage engagement. When was the last time you asked board members to go around the table and say why they joined the board? Or discussed the school’s vision? (If you don’t have one, write one!) Or had a conversation about what the community would be like if the school didn’t exist? Another strategy is the Appreciative Inquiry or AI method. All too often we find ourselves talking about what is not going well. Instead, ask your board members to brainstorm the school’s strengths and/or successes in various areas and record them. And there are other great side effects that result from these kinds of discussions: renewed appreciation for the school; stronger camaraderie between board members; different marketing ideas; improved shared language, and possibly even some new ideas for the board to work on.
Engagement remains high when board members feel that they are making a difference and when they see their power as a cohesive team.
Steve Laufer, Board President, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital
How do you engage all board members? Some are easy. For example, we have a new member of our board who in her professional life builds financial models for energy companies. Guess who now has responsibility for the school’s financial model? Similarly, it was a straightforward decision to put our real estate developer in charge of the facilities committee and our Jewish fundraising professional as chair of the advancement committee. But what do we do with the new board member who was chosen for the board for his good judgment and his past financial commitment to the school but doesn’t have skills that fit neatly onto any committee? The one who says “I’ll do whatever I can to help”?
In my limited experience, some board members can become engaged by taking on whatever responsibility needs filling. They just need to be asked, and they will rise to the challenge. Other board members never quite find their niche in committee work but feel they are contributing by raising key issues in board discussions. And some, I will admit, I haven’t yet found a way to fully engage. My hope is that through continued conversation, we will eventually find a project or a role that sparks their passion. In the meantime, the school always needs more board members willing to take seriously their roles as ambassadors, as advocates, and yes, as fundraisers. There is always work to be done, and most board members really do want to contribute to the best of their abilities.