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Boards can play a critical role in the success and reach of nonprofit organizations. How do you ensure board members are educated about and engaged in your cause?

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Fiesha Lynn Bell, Sarah Malchow and Robyn McGill weighed in on this topic at the inaugural Meaningful Edges event.

The panelists all stressed the vital role of board members as ambassadors for their organizations. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to effectively engaging board members because each is different; it requires a tailored approach that matches each member’s strengths and passions.

Asking for Access

Sarah highlighted the significance of alleviating common fears associated with fundraising. An organization’s staff can soften anxiety around fundraising by reframing the ask as an opportunity for advocacy and introduction.

“It might seem like you’re asking them to ask for money, but you're not. You're asking for those gifts of advocacy and introduction,” she said. “And when you frame it in those soft ways and make it clear to folks that you're asking for the gift of access, the gift of speaking well of you when they're not in your walls, that’s key.”

Sarah also emphasized reciprocating support to other organizations that board members may serve, fostering a culture of generosity and collaboration.

“We are not the only cause our board members care about,” she said. “Our team had the pleasure of presenting to one of our member’s other causes, offering our expertise in communications and fundraising. It’s important to be generous with your time and talent as you expect your board members to be generous with theirs.”

It’s the Board’s Show

Robyn shared insights from the Alzheimer’s Association about connecting board members to the cause through personal stories and experiences. Their connections to the disease fuel their passion and commitment. This is essential to the association’s efforts to spread awareness about the disease and break down its stigma.

“The fundraising part is always there, but we’re interested in their community connections. Because spreading that web as far as possible, casting that net, is really what we're trying to do,” she said.

Robyn also spoke about the pivotal role of an engaged board chair in driving leadership and energizing the entire board. The organization can empower the board to advance its mission by supporting the chair's vision and initiatives.

“As a staff, we support our committees and chair, but it’s their show. And if they want to rock the world, it's got to be them.”

Time, talent, treasure, ties and testimony

Fiesha discussed the diverse nature of board members and the importance of tailoring education and engagement approaches accordingly. Each member has unique strengths and preferences; they have different ways of sharing their time, talent, treasure, ties and testimony. She said an organization’s staff must have open and honest conversations with board members to establish shared expectations.

“Every board member is different. The expectation is the same. But how you get there looks different,” she said. “We say to our board members, ‘Tell me where you're at. How are you going to wear your ambassador hat, and how can we support you?’”

Some board members may require more tools and education to become closely involved, while others are self-driven and require minimal guidance. The organization’s staff should meet members where they are, providing the necessary tools and resources while respecting their approaches and capacities.

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Dan Schindhelm, AIA
Project Manager

Dan is a Project Manager for EUA in the Living Environments Studio in the Madison office. His role allows him to take part in a collaborative way, working with the Living Studio to schedule, budget and design requirements. Dan enjoys taking part in outdoor activities with his wife and two young children.

Jennifer Sodo , AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Senior Living Market Leader

Jennifer is a Senior Living Market Leader in our Living Environment Studio in the Milwaukee office. Her inspiration for design stems from people and their stories.