Sunday, October 14, 2012

Retiring members: Continuing commitment

They've dedicated years of their lives to your organization and your mission. They've developed deep understanding of your programs, your challenges, and your impact on the community. Suddenly, in a cruel by-laws joke, your collective journey must come to a forced end. Or does it?

Does retirement from your nonprofit board necessarily mean saying good-bye to some of your most dedicated volunteer leaders?

The answer, of course, is no. But in an environment where the bigger (perceived) challenge is retaining and engaging board members, many nonprofits can't bear the prospect of letting go of committed servants with long organizational histories, even when it is in our best interest to do so.

Frankly, too many members stay too long, because we - and they - see nowhere to go once you've hit that board service pinnacle. Rather than do what's right, and creating space for the fresh thinking that comes with bringing new voices to the table, we cling to that valued relationship. It is time to begin a new conversation, about finding fitting new ways to continue our journey of commitment.

As recently as a few years ago, I would have taken a wide-ranging, "infinite-world-of-opportunity" approach to brainstorming literally dozens of ways to move retiring board members into new forms of service. Today, I preface my thoughts with an acknowledgment/caution: changing tasks may be a straightforward process, but the mental transition from the governance role may not be so easy.

For some of your organizations and your veteran board members, moving on can happen seamlessly. They're happy to begin a new chapter, with fewer responsibilities. For others, letting go of the legal and moral power that comes with board service can be tough (and occasionally may fail altogether) and creates problems for everyone. Reading the following ideas, and generating your own, should be considered within that context.

Ask them to share their expertise in new ways. The member's expertise - in your mission field or an area considered valuable to the governance process - is one reason you recruited him/her to serve in the first place. Once on board, the member likely didn't have the time to share that deep expertise (or doing so would have stretched the bounds of appropriate board member involvement). Having their board responsibilities behind them opens up time to share those skills more directly. Do they have the expertise to help you fine-tune your marketing plan? Advise you on investment policies? How can they (appropriately) deepen your pool of resources/skills, now that they have shed the board member role and constraints?

Invite them to lead or participate in a special project. They've had a chance to develop strong interest in aspects of your work but never had the time to fully commit. Now they have time to focus on those projects, or assume volunteer leadership of other special program needs. Some examples might include:
  • Chairing a capital campaign or your annual fund drive
  • Coordinating a special event (public awareness or fundraising)
  • Gathering and organizing stories, data, etc., to expand (or create) your organizational history
  • Researching and writing draft grant proposals
  • Helping staff to develop a social media strategy
  • Researching public policy issues related to your mission area, summarizing in formats that can be shared with staff, board and others

Involve them more deeply in your community outreach efforts. Invite your retiree to join your agency speakers bureau. Ask him/her to accompany the CEO or board members to public events. Find ways to record and share the member's testimony about why the organization's mission is important, why he/she agreed to serve, thoughts about greatest accomplishments, etc. (Note: this may be one of the more challenging transitions to make, because of real or perceived blurring of boundaries. The retiree's voice no longer carries the weight of a governing board member; but the former board member, and some in the audience, may have trouble remembering that in the moment.)

Ask them to help you make new connections. Involve them more deeply in the donor identification and process. Ask them to query their networks (and their networks), interview key stakeholders, and identify new potential supporters. If they are willing, ask them to help you meet some of those prospects. Ask recent retirees to conduct similar research for board recruitment needs. Yes, the responsibility and choice ultimately belong to the board. But what board wouldn't benefit from thoughtful research that yields a broader, more diverse starting point for its recruitment process? The additional benefit: the retiree-prospector already understands the board's needs and unique dynamics.

Recruit them to front-line volunteer roles. If they didn't already rise through the organization from other volunteer positions to the board, having a chance to experience the work from a different perspective could be an exciting and appropriate next chapter in their service to you. They heard about your programs over time. Experiencing that work firsthand can be the next logical step to learn more, and a fresh opportunity to serve you.

Beware of emeritus status and advisory boards. Let's end with a big don't. Resist the urge to create special status and/or structures to maintain ties to retired board members. Emeritus or other honorary status invites confusion for everyone, and often the expectation of having an official voice that simply doesn't exist once one has stepped off the board. Similarly, advisory boards introduce nightmares of their own, including a new structure that must be staffed and the risk of overstepped boundaries (since governing boards are the only model most of us have). Unless you have clear, compelling reasons for implementing one of these options - and the structures and resources for them to succeed - look elsewhere.


2 comments:

Bonnie Koenig said...

These are excellent ideas and timely for me with a Board I am working with. As many of their 'founding' Board members are now rotating off there has been an emotional struggle between 'it is time for them to go' vis a vis 'they have important institutional memory and external relationships'. The compromise has been to have them serve on special task forces, one of the options you note.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I imagine that the scenario you describe will resonate with other readers, Bonnie. What is heartening to see is that they're recognizing (if maybe somewhat reluctantly?) that the time to move on is in the best interests of the organization. Personally, I think the special task force approach can be a fantastic way to keep them engaged in a productive way. Will be interesting to hear whether the transition from that decision making role will challenge some. Hopefully, they'll embrace it and launch a whole new chapter for them and the organization. Thanks for sharing!