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Nonprofit Board Vocabulary: Defining Board Member Experience

Spend enough time in a professional area, and you’re bound to run into some jargon. Nonprofits are no different. Sometimes the confusion around different board culture terms becomes counterproductive to improving the board experience. Board accountability, board management, board governance, board engagement – Let’s review these four terms, and some ways to improve the nonprofit board member experience.

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Defining Board Member Experience

Breaking It Down

  1. Board Management: This is a broad expression around actually running a board. It could mean managing the details of conducting a meeting, such as taking minutes and attendance. It can also include navigating interpersonal aspects of a board, like schedule conflicts, enforcing bylaws, and transitioning board members on and off.
  2. Board Accountability: Is everyone doing what they’re supposed to? That is the central question of accountability. Finishing tasks between meetings, replying to emails, doing research, all fall under “accountability.” If your board members have poor accountability, it can be a sign of bigger problems. It is the responsibility of the board chair to keep tabs on accountability.
  3. Board Governance: Are we covering all the bases? Board governance refers to the legal and fiduciary requirements of a nonprofit. It is the practice of keeping the right records, adhering to non-discriminatory standards, financial due diligence, and so on. Many boards find it helpful to have board governance committee to focus on meeting these important requirements.
  4. Board Engagement: Does everyone care about what they’re doing? This is the most important one of all. Engagement is a complex topic defined by many factors. It boils down to whether or not board members value the mission and act in a way that reflects that personal investment. If you don’t have engagement, none of the rest matters that much.

How to Improve the Board Member Experience

All of these board terms are important for different reasons, and factor into the overall board member experience. There is a delicate balance that has to happen to create the ideal environment for an effective board of directors. There are two crucial aspects to getting this right: board recruitment and setting expectations.

RELATED: What to Do When Board Meeting Attendance Falters

The Key to Healthy Board Governance & Accountability

It’s true that board governance and accountability encompass a wide array of topics. There are volumes written on each, and consultants devote entire careers to them. Luckily, there is a simple way to head off the biggest accountability and governance issues. The key is setting clear expectations from the beginning. Be sure all new board members know what is required of them in terms of attendance, participation, and so on. When everyone know the rules, it is much easier to get the desired result. The corollary of this is that there has to be someone willing to address shortfalls. If expectations are set but not enforced, board member morale will suffer. This is where a strong board chair is critical. Board governance and accountability are best with a balance of clear communication and compassionate performance feedback.

Board Management and Engagement: A Question of Recruitment

Perhaps the most important part of the board member experience is the mix of actual people in the group. There are so many aspects to consider. You need a certain mix of skills. It’s important to represent diverse backgrounds, as well as your mission’s population. Of course, you also want people with team-oriented personalities. However, when it comes to engagement and managing the board, the most important trait is passion for the organization. You can have the best board management, governance, and accountability, but without commitment to the mission, engagement will always suffer. If you can recruit board members who want to be part of your important work, the rest will fall into place with some hard work.

Tying the Board Member Experience Together

We throw around lots of technical terms for different aspects of the board member experience. Board management is important to running effective meetings. Accountability is necessary to get anything done. Governance is required to keep us fair and ethical. Strong board engagement ensures the nonprofit thrives. Through clear expectations and mindful board member recruitment, we can get a head start on achieving this delicate balance.


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