The Board Engagement Metric

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 12th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

 A few weeks ago, I got a request to speak with an executive director and a board president about their organization’s give policy. I always counsel boards that their policy on board giving must come with consequences. Since very few boards are willing to do so, very few organizations have an actual, formal policy (that means written down, approved by a board vote and memorialized in the policy manual—be it virtual or tangible).

The duo I was counseling had done everything it should have: the expectation of giving was made clear during recruitment of all board members; the purposes and importance of board giving had been repeatedly explained to the board and emphasized; two-on-one visits to board members who had not given, or who had under-given had been made and compliance besought. To no avail! Excuses, explanations, sputters were forthcoming, but with little success, leaving this duo feeling very frustrated.

I asked them what was their purpose for requiring this give. They said what you would expect: funders expect it; it shows that the board understands its responsibilities. And something you might not expect: staff gives more. They also recognize that giving is a sign of engagement. This is an organization that has been working hard on getting its board members engaged: engaged at meetings—both board and committee, engaged in fundraising, engaged in recruiting volunteers, engaged in executing their ambassador role.

I asked whether any one of these functions was more important to them in ensuring successful implementation of the mission. And it was an interesting conversation that ensued, as they started sorting that out. In the end, I suggested that they create a weighted measure of board engagement so that they could assess the engagement contribution of each and every board member and rank a board member on her/his total performance.

Before I lose any readers who might think I’m backtracking on the importance of the give, or any who have run off to start crafting their own engagement metric that allows people to be deemed “engaged” without ever having to give a penny, read on. An engagement metric in no way relieves a board member of the responsibility to make an unrestricted gift to the organization. (And, please: it is an unrestricted gift; it isn’t giving to the scholarship fund or for your favorite program.

It is an unrestricted gift with which the organization—without your permission—can do what it will. Unrestricted dollars are the hardest dollars to get and, yet, in so many ways the most significant, for they send a very important message.  And that message is, “I believe in this organization, its work, integrity, effectiveness, and its judgment and, therefore, I am giving you permission to decide where my money is most needed, however you see it.  If it is the electric bill, great! Paper towels for the year, nifty!  A bonus for a staff member, awesome!”  Nor does it relieve board members of doing everything else that goes into your metric.

But what it does allow for is putting into context what each board member can contribute at that particular time in his/her life and valuing those contributions equally.  As I believe I’ve made known before, I am not a fan of a give expectation being a minimum number of dollars.  It is a great impediment to diversity on the board, be it socioeconomic diversity, in some communities ethnic diversity, and more often than not, age diversity—all things with which many, many boards currently struggle.

Several years ago when my son, a just-minted college graduate with a bachelors degree in economics, wanted to join a board, we found the perfect match. But a quick call to the executive director to find out what the give expectation was—not wanting to waste anyone’s time if there was a fit there—determined that the match wasn’t so perfect after all. This organization expected a minimum gift of $5000, period. But had it been willing to accept a give of $500 and the use of his mother’s connections to funders, his financial capability, his nonprofit knowledge having grown up in the sector, his tireless energy, his entrepreneurial mindset, and his youthful arrogance that doesn’t believe everything can’t be done, the organization would have been way better served than by the many board members who merely gave their $5000 and not another thing.

A weighted measure of board performance/engagement/contribution/whatever you want or need to call it, is a much better way of assessing the true contributions and value of a board member. Such a metric can be variably weighted for each individual board member, standard for all or something in between.  For a younger board member just starting a career or for those whose career are not so financially rewarding, giving might be weighted as 20, cultivating donors a 30, regular attendance and active participation at board and committee meetings 20, using connections 20, and volunteering 10.  For a more seasoned individual, giving might be weighted 30, assuming a leadership position 20, using connections 20, making an ask(s) 10, and regular attendance and active participation at board and committee meetings 20.

The elements of the metric could change as an organization’s needs change, as it moves through its organizational lifecycles or as the environment around it changes. Thus, if doing a major fundraising campaign, an element could be making the asks or hosting and weighted more heavily than in “normal” times; or, an organization is in a start-up phase, using connections might be weighted 40 or 50 and individual giving only 10 or 20.  The beauty of a weighted measure of board member performance (I do like putting it out there as measuring board engagement) is that it takes into account the full array of assets that a board member brings to the table at a specific point in time, while simultaneously directing him/her as to how to use those assets.

A “good” board member is not one-dimensional and, thus, measurement of her/his success as a board member should never be assessed on one measure alone. What a nonprofit needs from its board members is also multi-dimensional and variable over time and circumstances; thus, a measure that assesses the value of board members should be sufficiently fungible to reflect the time and varying needs while still identifying the on-going roles and responsibilities of board members.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.