Improve Board Member Engagement by Defining the Role

John M. Bradley

Nonprofit boards of directors consist of people who are successful, care about the organization, and are often passionate about the mission. Yet, both board members and executive directors often lament that the board is not as engaged and as useful as it could be. To change that situation in your board, start by asking yourself whether you have defined the expectations of the position.

Role ambiguity destroys volunteers’ engagement. A study of 235 nonprofit volunteers demonstrated that when position responsibilities and goals were not clearly defined, the volunteers were less engaged. Failing to define a board member’s role is the first step on a road of mutual frustration and unfulfilled potential.

But, you might say, our board members are intelligent and determined: they don’t need to be told what to do, they’ll figure it out. Not true, suggests this study. These researchers measured whether having a strong sense that “I can achieve” some outcome (“self-efficacy”) would help keep the volunteer’s engagement high despite challenges. When the volunteer was faced with overcoming the organization’s lack of support in personnel, equipment, and information, then a high sense of self-efficacy did help keep engagement high. But when the problem was role ambiguity, no amount of self-efficacy helped. Even a determined volunteer couldn’t overcome the confusion of not knowing her role, responsibilities, and goals. And that makes sense – how could someone who believes they can achieve, do so when they don’t know what achievement they are aiming for?

Okay, you say, but most of our board members have been on other boards, so they know what they are getting into. Again, not true. Board member expectations are not consistent from organization to organization. While there are commonalities, there are significant differences. For instance, 121 community foundation executives were asked to describe the important activities or roles of the organization's board. While certain roles were mentioned with some frequency, only one role was mentioned by a majority of respondents, and that one (fundraising) barely garnered a majority, coming in at just 55%. When the CEOs of the same kind of nonprofit organization can’t agree on the board’s role, how much more confused will a volunteer board member, coming from a different professional background, likely be?

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  How could someone who believes they can achieve, do so when they don’t know what achievement they are aiming for?

How could someone who believes they can achieve, do so when they don’t know what achievement they are aiming for?

Board members struggle with understanding their role. As one organization’s leaders reflected after a crisis, the board “had many talented members, but few of them had any real understanding of what being a good nonprofit board member entailed.” It is a mistake to believe that everyone implicitly knows; both research and experience tells us otherwise. 

Board member engagement is a real problem. A study of human services organizations asked executive directors to rate their board’s level of involvement – actual and their preferred – in thirteen areas. In every area, board involvement fell short of the executive directors’ preferred involvement.

For a board to achieve great things, the members need to be engaged. But that engagement can’t be sustained unless the board members know what they are being asked to do. Start the process of high board achievement by defining the expectations of your board members.

John M. Bradley is the Principal of Broadfield Insight, where he provides governance education, advising, and consulting to boards of directors and nonprofit leaders. He can be reached at and at

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