A common complaint from chairs of volunteer boards of directors is that they are left to do all the work with little support from other directors. Over the last 15+ years we have come to notice a pattern that suggests some of the reasons why this happens.

When chairs struggle for support from their board it’s usually a function of one of the following three issues:

  • The chair doesn’t ask for help
  • There are no clear roles defined for directors
  • The chair and other key leaders don’t share information with other directors soon enough, or in enough detail

I want to focus on the first two points above which are really about communication. When a volunteer agrees to let their name stand for election to a board they generally have the best intentions, and genuinely want to help. It is the chair of the board and senior staff who then need to work together to engage these volunteers. How do you engage them? Communicate and involve them.
Make A Point of Asking For Help

It has been our experience that if a chair doesn’t ask for help, generally they won’t get it. We are all so busy in our day to day lives that despite wanting to help, we rarely offer, instead we wait to be asked. Too often chairs take the lack of “offers” to mean that they have a lack of support. This is usually not the case.

As a chair, look at what needs to be done and triage it – what do you need to do yourself and what can you ask other volunteers to do for you? Once you ask for assistance, provide the necessary information and allow your fellow volunteers to complete the task. Don’t micromanage them, let them help!

Build A Strong “Job Description” For Directors

One way of asking for help on board projects is to build specific role requirements into the job description for every director and their specific portfolios (if they have them).

This effectively precludes or at least lessens the need to ask for assistance as incoming board members and existing members will be expected to contribute in order to meet the clearly stated requirements identified as part of their “job description”.

The “job description” should define helping and tangible contribution as part of the social norms of a board. Norms are created in several ways including as carry-over beliefs and behaviours from other groups but also by simply communicating clearly what the social norms are within a group.

Start each meeting by reminding members that “we are a board of people that achieve by doing, and as such when you see an opportunity to contribute to our efforts please be quick to offer your assistance”.

Share Details and Information Early and Often

Another sure fire method of discouraging engagement by directors is to keep them in the dark. It does take time to keep people informed, but if you don’t your fellow volunteers won’t be kept engaged and will question their role. Never be in a position where your successor says “Why didn’t I know that?” about an important project being undertaken by your organization.

The more your fellow directors know about what you are doing as chair, and about what the organization is involved with, the more that they can help you with your leadership. In today’s electronic world it is easy to keep people informed. If you can’t cover everything in a timely fashion with your board chair report at meetings then consider a short, bullet point, bi-weekly or monthly update to your fellow directors.

Ask your chief staff officer to contribute which can make your job even easier. Sending something on a regular schedule can also help stop you from sending an email every time an idea develops or an issue evolves.

Help People to Help You

Directors want to be involved or they wouldn’t let their names stand for election. Keep them informed and ask for help to keep them engaged You will find it easier to lead and it will create a stronger organization in the process.