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Adieu suitcase

For a season, board members throw their minds, hearts, and financial resources into your organization. Then they come to the end of their terms (or their endurance). That's the cycle of board life.

Most nonprofit organizations handle well the sweet sorrow of parting as these special volunteers exit the boardroom. There are the tributes, the plaques, and parties. But after bye-bye board member, then what?

Despite declarations of continuing devotion, absence seldom makes the heart grow fonder -- at least when it comes to former board members. Unless you are intentional about trying to stem the natural progression of things, all those years of service to your organization very quickly fade to a pleasant memory. Before you know it, bye-bye board member turns into good-bye friend.

I've thought often about this challenge during my many years of consulting with, writing about, and serving on boards of faith-based organizations. It makes me sad when former board members drift away from causes to which they've given so much. I don't have a sure-fire, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, but let me suggest three beginning steps to holding the affection of departing members.


Ask deliver, use well

First, ask and do not assume. You may wish otherwise, but there's no use fighting the fact that not every soon-to-depart board member wants a significant role beyond his or her term of service. This doesn't mean these folks take their board work lightly. It's just that when their allotted terms of service come to an end, so does their sense of obligation to the organization. And that's all right. You can bless them, and send them on their way, guilt-free.

Fortunately, many board members will welcome a continued connection with a cause to which they've given much time, talent, and treasure.  But it's always better to ask and not simply assume.

Second, be realistic in what you promise. Caught up in a flurry of optimistic fervor, it's tempting to create opportunities for involvement that are beyond the organization's ability to deliver. But think before you leap into something new. Be sure there is ample staff support to engage former board members and that the opportunities offered are of real value.

Consider, for example, the idea of a special organization for past board members. It sounds easy enough, in theory. However, when faced with staffing the group and giving it meaningful work to do, well, that's another story.

The more prudent course is to capitalize on what already exists. It's my observation that even very small organizations have enough going on to make good use of the talents and interest of former board members.

Third, ban busy work. When it comes to engaging former board members (or any volunteer, for that matter) "significant" is the word of the day. You need to believe that giving folks meaningful and interesting work is the sincerest form of appreciation -- and then act accordingly. In the case of board alums, this might include:

  • Asking departing members to write about what serving on the board has meant to them and then including the testimonials in the board handbook or as part of new member orientation.
  • Inviting top performers from each departing group to sign on as mentors to the new crop of board members.
  • Recruiting members from the near past to help with special projects such as a capital campaign or strategic planning process.


So back to the question

After good-bye board member, then what? In the case of a few of these folks, the answer is not much of anything -- regardless how hard you work to keep them in the loop and engaged. However, for most former board members, if you ask, deliver, and use well, it'll be "hello friend" for a long time to come.


Cross-posted from Rebekah Burch Basinger's excellent fundraising blog, Generous Matters.

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