Four Essentials for Strengthening Relationships with Your Board and Volunteers

Four Essentials for Strengthening Relationships with Your Board and Volunteers

Relationships are hard. Whether they’re with a loved one, friend, or colleague, positive relationships require time, patience, and proactivity. Not surprisingly, the same holds true for a nonprofit organization’s relationship with its volunteers – particularly, the volunteer leaders who serve on Boards and auxiliary committees. 

Having served as a director of development myself, I know that without strong volunteers in these roles, many of us struggle to advance our philanthropic ambitions and connect in meaningful ways with our constituencies. On the other hand, volunteer leaders, when engaged well, help us seize opportunities and provide added muscle to our fundraising enterprise. The cherry on top: studies show that volunteers are twice as likely to donate to their organizations and give tenfold over donors who do not volunteer.  

Studies show that volunteers are twice as likely to donate to their organizations and give tenfold over donors who do not volunteer.  

My institutional clients often find it difficult to connect with their Board volunteers, largely due to their workload. I get it. It’s hard to balance the role of volunteer manager with the daily demands of “putting out fires.” But what if we flipped our thinking entirely, prioritizing our investment into the very relationships that could help us become fireproof? 

Like with any relationship, what we get out of working with volunteers is largely dependent upon our own contributions. These four principles will help you effectively engage Boards and committees in ways that will leave you feeling mutually fulfilled and better equipped to advance your strategic priorities.  

1. Establish Clear Boundaries

I am working with an arts and culture organization whose Board is incredibly engaged and has been a crucial element in its fundraising success.  

What’s this organization’s secret? Several years ago, leaders recognized it was time to toss out the old playbook and reset their expectations with the Board. This included establishing new shared roles and responsibilities, as well as ironclad bylaws defining the regular rotation of Board leadership, term limits, and succession planning. Most importantly, they socialize volunteers with this new framework and regularly hold each other accountable for following it. 

Practically speaking, boundaries and guidelines will differ between organizations, but there are several distinctives you’ll want to emphasize as you shape a high-performing Board. Volunteer leaders should: 

  • Give generously and hold your organization as a personal philanthropic priority​ 
  • Remain well informed about institutional goals and priorities and serve as ambassadors for your organization at every opportunity 
  • Assist in cultivating, soliciting, and engaging potential donors 
  • Practice sound governance to ensure that sustainable fiscal resources are available to deliver on the mission​ 
  • Ensure that your organization translates its strategic priorities into clear and compelling philanthropic objectives that speak to diverse constituencies​ 

Organizational leaders must remember to establish ground rules for themselves, as well. It shouldn’t be a guessing game to determine who is responsible for maintaining Board relations. Review the job descriptions of key staff positions assigned to work with Board members, and ensure all duties related to Board engagement are codified in writing.   

2. Maintain Open Communication

I often see staff members preparing eloquent, beautifully designed Board reports. This is certainly well-intentioned. Organizations are responsible to their Boards, and Boards, in turn, are responsible for strong governance; we should always arm them with the critical information they need to do the job well.  

Yet, how often does this extensive preparation lead to meetings chock full of reports, rather than open and honest dialogue with our most crucial thought partners? Have a look at your next meeting agenda. If it is driven by reports from staff, consider it time to rethink your communication strategy. A great first step is identifying advocates on your Board, such as committee chairs, to lead discussion around key agenda items. 

In my experience, the real magic happens between Board meetings, and I’m not just talking about in a committee setting. Think about creating personalized work plans with your trustees and scheduling regular check-ins that help both sides stay on track.  

Open communication channels between Board members and staff. One museum client ensured that there were several contact points between middle-management and the Board to support fundraising strategy development and execution. As a result, fundraising program managers received the support they needed while the Board members developed stronger relationships across the institution.   

3. Nurture the Bond

Remember that your volunteers are among your most important donors and ambassadors – never take them for granted. Moreover, just because you see your Board members at a meeting doesn’t mean that you can check off that engagement box! Have a plan for creating communal and educational opportunities that foster deeper levels of engagement with your mission.  

Is your annual Board meeting accompanied by a social dinner? Are you inviting Board members to join as guests for special events or public programs? Has someone called to simply say, “Thank you?”  

If you can think about one stewardship touchpoint quarterly for every Board member, you’re off to a great start! As you brainstorm ideas, let these stewardship tips from my colleagues inspire you. 

4. Know When the Relationship Has Run Its Course

So – you’ve had the same volunteer corps for a decade. Perhaps it’s become counterproductive, but neither you nor your volunteers want to admit it’s time to call it quits.  

Saying goodbye can be the hardest part of any relationship, but when it comes to your volunteers, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is especially true if you’ve set clear ground rules and established healthy communication, as I mentioned previously. When you have term-limits in place and an ongoing feedback loop, this conversation becomes much easier. Most Board members are excited by the prospect of bringing new perspectives to the table and will happily step aside to make room for other volunteers. 

Honorary committees are a great option for volunteer leaders who want to remain in the know, but who are ready to step back from active participation. Meanwhile, your stewardship efforts should continually fuel their enthusiasm for your mission, so they remain close allies. For this group, consider an annual meeting with your organization’s director or president, and report away! 

If you take just one nugget of information from this guidance, let it be this this: nurture your relationship with volunteer leaders as you would with any other donor. After all, these exceptional individuals made you a priority by giving you their most precious resource – time. So, learn what makes these supporters tick, then find ways to connect their passions with your mission, and their strengths with your goals.  

Lisa Brown is a Consultant whose expertise includes two decades of experience in development, communications, strategic management, and Board relations. For guidance on how to incorporate these ideas in your organization’s volunteer management strategy, contact Lisa at lbrown@grenzglier.com 

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About the author

Lisa Brown

Vice President

Lisa Brown is a Vice President in GG+A’s Arts & Culture practice, bringing two decades of experience in development and strategic management to the firm. Having served in key advancement roles at prestigious cultural institutions, such as the Guggenheim Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Lisa drives positive institutional…