Board Engagement: Is ‘Give, Get or Get Off’ Really the Best Strategy?
Based on a presentation by Jeanne Jachim, Vice President, Virginia Mason & President, Virginia Mason Foundation at the 2018 AHP Annual International Conference in San Diego.
In 2014, the Virginia Mason Foundation had a board problem. Board meeting attendance was low – with less than half of members present at meetings – there was little discussion of philanthropy and the board felt that the fundraising process should be left entirely to staff.
They had a “give, get or get off” policy, but it was largely ineffective. While all board members gave, fewer than half reached the minimum annual threshold of $2,500. Just 20 percent were actively involved in raising funds. Yet no one was leaving the board. They were comfortable with the inactivity.
Jeanne Jachim, vice president, Virginia Mason & president, Virginia Mason Foundation, began by holding individual conversations with each board member. She asked each one about their vision for the foundation’s future and offered them two choices: Plan A would maintain the current state of the board, while Plan B would create a new pathway to change and engagement. Unanimously, board members agreed a change was needed.
Change began as Jachim developed the foundation’s first strategic plan. The plan included not only contextual information, such as why the foundation exists, but also defined roles and responsibilities for board members.
To help refocus the board around philanthropy, the plan outlined a detailed path for the foundation’s growth, including specific metrics and a timeline with concrete deliverables so the board could measure progress. The amount of funds raised by the board became one of the primary measurements for success.
Jachim also led the Virginia Mason Foundation board through an exploration of the ideal makeup for the board. At the time the strategic plan was launched, the 13-member board was primarily male, primarily retired and many had “aged out” of their community connections. Following the new strategic plan’s launch, a few board members chose to step down, mostly due to age. In seeking their replacements and trying to expand the board, Jachim sought potential members with at least two of the four traits that Jerry Panas, a luminary of the fundraising world, has identified as critical for effective board members: work, wealth, wisdom and wallop (or community influence).
Over the next two years, the foundation board nearly doubled in size to 25 members. Board recruitment became a topic on every meeting agenda. Regular discussion of the board’s role and the qualities needed in new members gave the existing board a better understanding of their function.
Achieving buy-in on the strategic plan and expanding the board to 25 were strong first steps, but Jachim’s next challenge was to keep the momentum going. She implemented four tactics to help board members remain engaged.
- Added board social time. The Virginia Mason Foundation began holding a cocktail reception at the end of one board meeting a year, so board members could get to know each other in a relaxed, social setting. This has become their best-attended board meeting of the year, and board members have begun asking for more frequent social events.
- Created a committee structure. Each board member was asked to participate on one of three committees: major gifts, corporate or audience development. All three committees have made an impact. The audience development committee launched a young professionals group, while the major gift committee took the lead in promoting a lifetime giving society.
- Established annual 1:1 meetings with foundation president and board members. Jachim schedules 30-minute individual conversations with board members each year. “It allows me to get a read on what they’re thinking about and allows them to talk about things that bother them that they wouldn’t share in a large group or things that they really like,” she said. “These have been stellar conversations for me.”
- Remained open to opportunity. Don’t automatically shut down a board member’s idea, even if it is outside the parameters of your plan. “If you pull that string, it can take you to places you haven’t been,” Jachim said. “I work hard to never say ‘No, why would we do that,’ but shift to talking about it.”
Since implementing these changes, the Virginia Mason Foundation has seen a dramatic increase in board engagement. Committees are successfully identifying prospects and moving them along the pathway toward solicitation. Board members are successfully participating in cultivation and stewardship activities.
So does a “give, get or get off” policy make sense? It’s a good framework, but to be most effective, it should be combined with purposeful engagement, a clear vision and tools for success in philanthropy.
Your board can be one of your most valuable assets when it comes to raising money. It’s worth the time and effort to ensure they are as effective as they can be.