Achieving Buy-In: The Key To A Committed Board

One of the first questions I receive from CEO’s is “How do I get my board to work for the good of the organization?” It is then followed by, “My board members are so busy that they rarely have the time I need for them to work for the agency.” These are just two of the many questions that are raised by professionals who work with volunteer leaders. The challenge is how to motivate people to volunteer their time to work on “the real issues” the organization confronts on a daily basis.

The focus is on “how do I get” and “my board members”. It would behoove us to spend some time on looking at where the emphasis is placed. The professional responsible for facilitating the board members in the governance and sustainability of the non-profit has to be clear about what it means to have an active and involved board of directors. It is also imperative for there to be clarity about whose board members they are and whose responsibility it is to motivate them to be involved.

The responsibility for motivating and involving the volunteer leaders in the board of directors does not rest solely with the professional staff of the non-profit. The volunteer leaders should have a boarder sense of their identification with the organization and commitment to building and strengthening the agency. How do we build this feeling among board members and sustain it over time?

It is important to build a sense of “buy-in” among the members of the board. This refers to the board members not only identifying with the purposes and goals of the organization but also developing a sense of ownership. When individual volunteer leaders have a sense that they are responsible for the organization and they are prepared to invest their time and energy in furthering the goals and programs it is referred to as “ownership”. For some volunteer leaders there is an instant connection between their interests and the agencies programs and for other leaders it evolves over time as they are more and more active and involved in the organization.

When volunteer leaders develop their connection to the organization they will feel a sense of personal fulfillment. They are able to find expression for their desire to be involved in some aspect of the voluntary agency’s commitment to enhance educational, health or social services in the community. There are a number of ways to nurture new volunteers’ involvement and strengthen veteran leaders’ commitment to the non-profit.

Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a full-day retreat for a group of volunteer leaders involved in a non-profit agency. There were 20 people participating in the retreat and approximately two-thirds of the people were interested parties who believed in the purposes and goals of the organization and one-third were formally members of the board of directors. The director was interested in fostering the commitment of the members of the board and bringing the other people closer to the organization through their involvement in a variety of potential roles with the agency and the board.

The day was designed to take a group of people who had more of a connection with the director than they had with each other and forge connections among them that went beyond just their relationship with the CEO. As we began the meeting each person spoke and responded to three questions:

  1. What is the reason that you are here?
  2. What are your expectations for the day?
  3. What is one thing you would like the group to know about you?

Many of us know that the purpose of the opening exercise was to create a common agenda and to encourage the people to talk to each other. The broader goal of the day was to go from an “I” point of reference to a “We” as they participated in the retreat. Initially, almost everyone said they were in the room because of their relationship with the director. He was the “glue” that held everything together.

When the group has a sense that they are no longer in the room for the sake of a singular person they begin to develop an awareness that they are a collective. Each person becomes part of the whole and they are transitioning into a board of directors. It is not uncommon for there to be board members and non-board members participating in a retreat together. In this case, involving both added to the dynamic of the discussions and broadened the pool of potential future board members.

Through the use the series of exercises the participants worked together in pairs and in small groups. At the end of each of the break-out sessions there was a report back so the entire group could share in the results of the deliberations. This process reinforced the transitioning from a collection of people into a group sharing a common agenda.

At the end of the day there was a “closing circle” and the participants used the word “we” when they referred to their work together. A sign up sheet was passed around so that people could select which of the task forces they would like to join to further the agenda of the organization and strengthen the function of the leadership group.

The task forces reflected the themes that had been discussed throughout the day. They understood that if you want to be part of an organization and you identify with the programs – you are buying-in – then you have to volunteer to work on issues that are important for the organization.

At the end of the day there were a number of open issues that would have to be discussed in the months ahead. The volunteer leaders are now connected to each other and they are prepared to work on these issues as a committed board. They are assuming “ownership” of both the “what” – services and programs – and “how” the decisions are made in regard to financial sustainability.

In order to achieve “buy-in” a process has to be created that provides the opportunity for people to explore their connection to the non-profit agency and to decide on the strength of their commitment. A board retreat provides an excellent setting to engage new and veteran leadership.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.