by Beth Ellen Holimon, The Hive Collective

Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations with board members across the country about board disengagement, the effects of it, and the frustrations for board chairs and executives. The most commonly cited cause of this detachment is the lack of in-person gatherings with board meetings on Zoom for the last two years.  However, board member disengagement was a major issue long before the pandemic came along.

Board Culture consists of the behaviors, systems, and the language of your board governance. Board engagement is just one aspect of functional board culture, but the desired behaviors of engagement are not usually defined so it’s no surprise that board members often think just attending meetings is meeting the cultural obligations. Unfortunately, board governance is treated as separate from board culture and purpose of the organization; this perpetuates the disconnected and disjointed feelings that board members are experiencing – especially now.

In order for a board to be structured for the accountability and engagement necessitated in the typical vision statement, a board must coalesce through its values, behaviors, and connection.  Board member engagement boils down to whether or not a board member feels valued as a person, sees that their experiences are respected, knows that their skills can be utilized, and that they feel accountable to the board community.  It’s hard to have one without the other.

To foster the change that a board and organization envisions, there must be:

    • Safety in board meetings to allow for dissent
    • Appreciation of gifts each board member brings to the community of the board
    • Commitment and accountability to the community of the board
    • Ownership of the culture of the board, in addition to the mission and vision of the organization

These requirements engender a culture of belonging.  How would you describe your board culture? No matter how hard you work on your strategy or structure, it is the consistent organizational and human behaviors that are responsible for its success or its demise. Prioritizing the human factor in governance, strategy, and implementation will lead you to the change you envision.

Some questions to think about:

    • Have you defined the behaviors for board members that exhibit the values of your organization?
    • How are your values clearly embodied in your bylaws and policies?
    • How are your values and behaviors articulated in your annually signed board agreements?
    • How are individuals on the board committed to the community and culture of the board?

It’s easy to blame the lack of engagement on the fact that in-person connection is not happening, but board member engagement is more complex than just being face-to-face.  Before governance, before planning, your board must create a sense of vital engagement – a connectedness and commitment to your board community.  A board culture that includes belonging, will enable your board to lead the organization in achieving your mission, ensuring that your board culture is one that you create.

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