From the Desk of Sara Swain: Engaging Women's Boards

Women’s boards represent a unique fundraising institution with a long, colorful history. What some may see as an archaic tradition continues to thrive, particularly in Chicago. Some boards have been in existence for over 100 years (the Woman’s Boards of Rush University Medical Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, for example), and new boards continue to arrive on the scene (the Adler Planetarium and Joffrey Ballet Women’s Boards have been around less than 20 years). According to a 2014 article in Crain’s Chicago Business, these boards began as an outlet for women who did not work outside the home. “The Ladies,” as they are affectionately called by their liaising staff, were initially given tasks like running gift shops and serving as ambassadors for the organizations they supported. But as nonprofits have matured, so have their women’s boards; their reach now extends into areas like education, community outreach, and fundraising.

I had the opportunity to work with two women’s organizations during my time in the nonprofit sector: The Women’s Association of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (now the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association), and the Women’s Board of Lincoln Park Zoo. At the former, I assisted with the WA’s education and outreach activities, as well as their administrative and social functions. At the latter, I served as the Board’s full-time administrative staff, coordinating all their functions and activities, including major fundraising events ZooLA and Zoo Ball. These experiences gave me a privileged “insider’s view” of how these organizations function.

Like other volunteer and governing boards, women’s boards support the benefiting organization through financial contributions; board membership typically requires a minimum annual fund contribution each year. Unlike other groups, women’s boards are hands-on with their fundraising and service to the organization; it is common for The Ladies to manage their own annual fund campaigns, personally plan their own fundraising events, assemble their own mailings, and lean on their social and professional contacts to solicit support (both financial and in kind). Active members work hard to ensure the success of their fundraising endeavors, and they take great pride in their accomplishments. Therein lies a major reason behind nonprofits’ continued support of these groups: they bring money and connections. Also, they can throw an amazing party.

With these unique groups come unique demands. Board members may or may not have (recent) work experience, and thus a great deal of explanation regarding the administrative side of the nonprofit may be required. While the board is a fundraising group, it is also a social group, and with that comes:

  • conflicts of personality (like the event co-chairs who wouldn’t speak to each other without a third-party present),
  • unexpected meeting locations (I’ve found myself in jewelry stores, high-rise apartments, hospitals, and hotels),
  • unusual requests (for example, getting a 30-pound gingerbread house to the top of the Hancock Center).

This work requires a highly personal touch. These women invest a great deal of time and effort, and they take pride in their board’s accomplishments, so they expect their opinions to be heard and their contributions to be recognized. The Ladies also tend to have a strong sense of ownership when it comes to the money they’ve raised; they want to determine how the funds are allocated.

With millions of dollars raised over nearly eight years of experience, I’ve come away with some key observations for keeping women’s board members happy and engaged:

  • Clarity of expectations is very important. Board members need to know that this is a financial commitment as well as a time commitment. If that isn’t clear from the beginning, membership will suffer.
  • Engagement is essential. If board members aren’t given a concrete role, if they don’t feel the organization is making good use of their time and that they’re making a difference, board members are not going to stay. There will always be those for whom the social activities are the driving motivation, but the most active board members tend to be those for whom the philanthropic element is the priority.
  • New members are most successful when they have a sponsor. Having a friend who is already on the board who can shepherd them through the membership process can help ease the transition, explain expectations, and make introductions to other board members. Sponsors should be chosen carefully; it’s best to select longstanding members who fully understand the commitments and the culture of the group.
  • Board members want to be heard, and they expect a prompt response. If you can’t fulfill a request, or you need some time to follow up, a quick note back, even just to say, “I hear you,” goes a long way.
  • Recognition holds great value for women’s boards. This could come in the way of press coverage of their events, small tokens to recognize the length of service, or public signage recognizing their financial support.
  • Create opportunities for working women. These are often the members with the best connections and the strongest business acumen. They could be the next generation of women’s board leadership. Boards with diverse membership and ample opportunities for participation have the strongest chance for success.
  • Communicate priorities. Sometimes board members struggle to see beyond their own immediate goal to the bigger picture of the board and the whole organization. The limited resources of a nonprofit, both human and financial, may also be unfamiliar to them. There is a reason for the high turnover among staff who work with women’s boards, and setting some boundaries can help to ameliorate the issue.

Working with women’s boards is, without a doubt, challenging on a number of levels. However, it affords an opportunity to partner with some of the most passionate, hardworking, driven women you are likely to meet, these days more and more of whom are business and philanthropic leaders. Their dedicated support can play a significant role in a nonprofit’s livelihood, and their advocacy can draw much-needed attention to its mission.

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