How Do Nonprofit Boards Keep Stakeholders Engaged?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Photo
First, exactly who are the “stakeholders” in the nonprofit environment? Most directors would readily define the term as clients, staff and board members. But what about other participants such as external auditors and significant vendors? Surely a nonprofit that depends on a vendor to supply groceries can be hobbled if the food is not delivered properly. And, last but not least, the backbone of the organization — the volunteers! Many cogs in the wheel make the nonprofit world go around and need consistent and careful attention. Following are some guidelines for engaging all types of stakeholders:
- Don’t marginalize, dismiss, or ignore a stakeholder: Unfortunately, for example, termed-out board members * are often dismissed in more than one sense of the word. After serving the typical tenure of four to six years, the retired board members may only receive boilerplate materials or fund solicitations. Any residual interest or enthusiasm for the nonprofit is not encouraged unless the retiree initiates a desire to remain connected. The assumption is that the past board members are content with the disconnect.
For those board members who have been active participants during their term, this tactic may actually be counterproductive from many points of view—talent, expertise and development possibilities. I have observed several cases in which this unintended marginalization has resulted in losing substantial financial support and needed talent. In each case, the retirees have declined to help, using the excuse that they have been too far away from the activities of the organization. Boards must be creative in finding ways of reigniting the former directors’ commitment to the organization’s mission. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways—in an advisory capacity, forming “alumni” groups and/or by including them in social events and other occasions.
- Recognize who may be a true partner: Such a partner can range from a vendor that has supplied the organization or a volunteer whose interests have moved to another nonprofit to a legacy board member who has developed new insights. “It is generally easier to build consensus, request help and engender trust when those who support you are well-informed, candidly and truthfully.” **
- Stakeholders must know about the nonprofit’s challenges and needs: Even the best-managed nonprofits have their ups and downs. During the latter periods, educating stakeholders about the issues can help to dissuade some to avoid posting job cuts and other actions.
- Self–perpetuating boards can became insular and lose touch with other stakeholders: “These boards tend to retreat into a silo-or bunker-mentality that only serves to intensify bad habits and practices, as well as preclude consideration of other perspectives.” ** At difficult times, the board can tend to lose trust in the ED even when the problem is beyond the EDs control. If the board is at fault, it may look for a scapegoat on which to hang the root cause of the problem, often people in senior management.