Engaging the Disengaged Board Member
Regardless of what type of board you have governing your association, effective governance can be severely hampered by disengaged board members. Disengagement can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Board members might not participate in meetings, or they might not choose to attend them at all. With the many challenges facing associations, few boards can afford to have disengaged members. And solving the problem is more complicated than just having bylaw provisions with attendance requirements. By the time you get to that point, you’ve lost valuable time and potentially a valuable board member, while also setting the wrong tone. Here are some strategies for engaging the disengaged board member.

Set clear expectations for prospective board members. In other words, keep the problem from happening in the first place. Associations have a variety of methods for filling vacant board seats. Some have rigorous nominating processes, while others may have informal methods. Even more challenging is when someone automatically becomes a board director by virtue of another role, such as committee chair, chapter leader, foundation president, etc. These directors, in particular, are prime candidates for “disengaged directors.” Before anyone ascends to the board, it is important that the current leadership or nominating committee discuss the expectations for board service with them. If their job or some other issue is going to keep them from fully participating, they need to be discouraged from board service in the first place.

Establish a formal board-orientation process. By the time someone is elected to an association board of directors, they may think they have good knowledge of association policies, programs, financials, etc. The reality is that few board members know everything they need to know from the beginning. Members are quick to disengage when they don’t feel they have the information to effectively participate. Establish a formal board-orientation process to bring new members up to speed. It can be informal, such as one-on-one conversations, or it can be more formal and involve written board job descriptions and board orientation manuals.

Give them something to do. Some associations have a tendency to consolidate responsibility with a small group of board members or officers. Not only is this unfair to those board members and officers, it can cause other board members to disengage if they feel “everything is under control” or, worse, that “my input is not wanted.” Many board members will be future candidates for association leadership, so test their mettle by starting with specific assignments such as chairing an ad hoc work group, further developing an initiative with staff or coming up with possible solutions to a problem. Seek out board members for these assignments and ask them to contribute. Point out special skills you think they have that make them good candidates.

Make board meetings matter. Nothing will disengage a board member faster than the feeling that they’re wasting their time in meetings and conference calls. Make sure board agendas are tightly constructed with a focus on key decisions, policy development and strategic direction. Eliminate unnecessary reports that could be provided in advance and tactical issues better left to the staff.

Have “the talk.” If all else fails and a board member continues to be disengaged, it’s time for a board officer to have a discussion with them about board service expectations. Sometimes their issue may be easily remedied, but there may be an underlying issue that is preventing full participation. In that instance, it is best to have a conversation about whether continued board service is in the best interest of both them and the association.


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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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