Don’t You Love Me Anymore? The Critical Care of Past Board Members

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I served on your board for two consecutive three-year terms. I was re-nominated for that second term because I was doing a good job.

I rarely missed a board meeting or a committee meeting. Each year, I gave a gift, steadily increasing it over the years. I volunteered to take on some one-off tasks, based on my profession and my experience.

You gave me a nice book when I stepped down. You said complimentary things at the farewell board meeting. You sent me a nice letter, too. Truly, the farewell activities were kind and gracious.

But then…I never heard from you again.

Oh, sure. You sent me the regular solicitation letters. But back when I was on the board, you solicited me personally. I told you that I was giving you one of the biggest gifts I ever gave. But still, I got dropped from the personal solicitation list.

Of course, I received the donor newsletter and the annual report—but never a special note, not even on the thank-you letter for my gifts. Just about every exchange with you feels like you forgot I ever served on the board.

If you think this is an unusual story, you’re mistaken. I see organizations do this too often. I’ve had that experience. I have colleagues and friends who’ve had the same experience. And I’ll bet you may have had the same experience, too.

You served on that organization’s board. I did, too. We gave more than money. We gave time. We made a place in our lives for the organization. We didn’t abandon the organization. But the organization kind of abandoned us.

How does this happen? What can we do to keep past board members involved, or at least acknowledged?

Before we get into specific ideas, let me explain my general thinking.

First, why does this matter? Why does it matter if an organization stops acknowledging its past board members? Who cares?

Look back at the opening to this column. I spent lots of time with you. I made a place for you in my life beyond giving money. We were connected and involved. The relationship was more than financial contributions.

As an executive director and development officer (I’ve been both), I think we owe you—our former board members—more than “thanks and farewell” and a book or a plaque.

I’m also assuming that you, our former board member, are probably still a donor…a loyal one.

Why would I assume this? Because this column is talking about former board members who actually believed in the cause. These board members actually cared—and likely still care and still believe in the cause.

I don’t care much about those former board members who used your organization to build a resume or as a stepping-stone to a “more important” charity. Or those who didn’t show up much, never really participated.

I’m talking about the engaged and caring volunteers of time and donors of money. I’m talking about loyalty and commitment.

Next, I assume the organization knows who its former board members are. (You might think that’s obvious. But I know organizations that haven’t kept an easily accessible, up-to-date list.) Just like you want your current board members to know who your most loyal donors are…I think you want your current board members to know who your most loyal board members are. Share the list. Highlight your loyal donors who are former board members.

So here are my engagement ideas today:

  1. Invite former board members to serve on committees. These individuals can still offer important perspective and expertise.
  2. With your donor newsletter, include a cover letter for former board members. If you’re using best practice with your donor newsletter, you’re sending it in an envelope, not as a self-mailer. So include a letter addressed to former board members. It’s not a solicitation letter. It’s just a “hello” and a “thanks again for serving on our board.” This personal note accompanying the newsletter reminds me that you remember me. I feel honored.
  3. When sending out a program or special event invitation, stick in a little note for former board members. Same reasoning as #2 above.
  4. At events, whether program for fundraising or cultivation, how about having “former board member” nametags? (I’d have another that says “donor,” too.) And for those who are donors and former board members—include both. Of course, make sure your current board members have a nametag, too. (Remember, nametags are icebreakers, conversation starters, and comfort builders.)
  5. Invite former board members to host cultivation gatherings in their homesto introduce your organization to those who might be interested. Invite former board members to co-host a cultivation gathering with a current board member.
  6. Invite former board members—along with loyal donors—to an insider update. A cup of coffee, a muffin, and an update about how we’re spending your money…the organization’s recent impact.
  7. Maybe send out an annual update letter to all former board members. No request. Just an update. After all, former board members should certainly be concerned a special group.
  8. If you solicit former board members through direct mail, how about making sure that the letter mentions their former position as a board member…a letter specially written for former board members?
  9. How about an annual cultivation gathering for former board members only?
  10. I hope you invite former board members to help you conduct your personal face-to-face solicitation campaign each year. (And if you don’t yet conduct this kind of annual fundraising campaign, read my prior columns that urge you to do so.)
  11. And how about having current board members make thank-you calls for gifts made by former board members?
  12. Maybe you create an Ambassadors Corps. You invite your most loyal donors to join. You invite former board members who are still donors to join. You even invite some of your major gift donors to join.
    Ambassadors are invited to make thank-you calls to donors. Ambassadors are invited to an annual gathering for a personal update. What else could you do with ambassadors?

Okay. That’s it for today. Try these ideas if you haven’t already. Please share your ideas with all of us, in the comment section. Thanks. And keep your former board members close.


  • Simone Joyaux

    Check out this post from colleague Eugene Fram. Gene writes good stuff about boards. Thanks for sharing, Gene!

  • Susan J. Ellis

    Excellent points and suggestions! But this issue is connected with the much larger one that we tend to value gifts of money far more than gifts of time. I’ll bet every organization maintains good records on the dollars given by every donor — no matter the amount. But too often the database does not even provide fields for also recording what that same person — or members of his/her family — have contributed in terms of time, expertise, and other non-cash efforts. For example, annual reports often list the names of big money donors (as do theater playbills). Have you ever seen information on the people who made programs happen by elbow grease? Universities give gifts to big donors, but the volunteers who work all year to create a class reunion at which those checks are solicited often get next to nothing in the way of thanks.

    Nonprofit board members are volunteers. We need to honor that identity and — as you correctly point out — believe that they continue to care about our mission even when off the board. This is a talent pool too good to waste — or alienate.

    I’m going to share this with the Energize, Inc. social networks. Thank you!

  • Betty P. Rauch

    Other than the fact that you ruined my day with your fabulous suggestions, I want to thank you for this article. It is a GREAT wake up call. I needed it!!

  • Mary Serrano

    #5-What is a a ‘homesto?”

  • Simone Joyaux

    Ah Susan… You have hit a key point (and angering point)! Money. Money. Money. Our society is soooo focused on money. And so is philanthropy. Have you read my piece “Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma”? You can find it in the Free Download Library on my website. It is also the final chapter of the book KEEP YOUR DONORS (by Tom Ahern and me).

    Donors…. of time or money….
    Donors….of any size gift….

    Thank you for raising the issue. We need to raise this over and over and over and…

  • Julie Pearson

    This is a great article, full of great ideas for engaging former Board Members. I especially like #9. When I was head of my church’s vestry (the equivalent of its Board), I hosted an informal dinner at the beach for all the vestry members who had rolled off the vestry the year before. We had all worked so hard together and spent so much time together and then after they were off, we rarely saw each other. I made sure everyone knew that the only agenda was to enjoy each other’s company, and we did. It was so successful that I repeated the event the next year, and other ex-Vestry members whom I hadn’t served with heard about it and asked to come as well! Who doesn’t want to come to a party where they will know everyone and not be asked to do anything?!

  • Dave Jennings, CAE

    Thanks for this article. These items are helpful reminders of how we can and should be honoring the service of these good people who have led our organizations.

  • Linda Lysakowski

    Simone is right on, as always. Maybe as a follow up to her great book, Firing Lousy Board Members, she should write Firing Organizations That Don’t Know How to Treat Board Members. I too have been in this position and wonder why I never hear from some of these groups personally.

  • Hayim

    Sadly… I have had this happen to me… after 12 years… of dedicated service. The most painful part was being asked again to serve only to be forgotten at the election. I am now the voice of the past and possibility of the future. Ahhh. To be part of the present would be a blessing.

  • Weldon LeBlanc

    These are excellent examples of how to engage past Board members…great opportunities to hold onto their knowledge and experience within the organization.