Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Jeb Banner, CEO of Boardable
Lack of effectiveness is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for both nonprofit and for-profit boards. Dysfunctional group dynamics, disengagement with the board’s purpose and function, and (perhaps most importantly) a lack of understanding of each member’s specific roles all contribute to lackluster board performance and results.
Onboarding new nonprofit board members may seem like a time-consuming chore, especially if a new board member has served in a similar capacity for other organizations. But if you really want your board to serve in its fullest and best capacity, a little time spent training new members can yield big benefits down the line.
Here are Four Pillars of Board Member Orientation:
- Start with a clear definition of what a stellar board member looks like. There should be no surprises for a new board member when they go to their first meeting. During the recruitment process, you need to clearly spell out what is expected of each board member so they know what they are signing up for. Some boards like to have an informal member agreement. By simply promising to attend (X) number of meetings, introduce (Y) number of people to the organization, or complete a personal development goal, board members feel compelled to meet their goals. The most important, and perhaps most difficult, part of this is to not coerce anyone into committing to more than they are willing or able to complete.
- Create a strong support network for new board members. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, depending on your board’s configuration. One idea is to establish a board mentor program. Even directors who have served on other boards might appreciate someone designated to ask questions about the nonprofit’s mission. Often this “buddy system” encourages directors to participate more in organization and board events, knowing there will be a familiar face at their first gatherings. To cultivate an ongoing culture of camaraderie, be sure to include some social time in board service. This can be as simple as a breakfast the week of a board meeting to pre-introduce new directors, or a happy hour after the board meeting to debrief on the meeting.
- Provide a new board member with the information they need (but not too much!) to understand their position from the start. There are a variety of philosophies on what to include here, but the most effective format is to structure your orientation pack with high-level information first, and fill in with detail as needed. Start with an overview of major programming statistics, fundraising numbers, and any other big news from the previous year. Then, provide the budget for next year and an outline of any known upcoming challenges. Finally, compile more detailed committee reports, past minutes, and in-depth information for review once a new board member has the lay of the land.
- Continually look for ways to improve your orientation procedure. Keep a live document on board member onboarding, and make notes of where more or less information is needed. As your organization and board evolves, the needs of your new directors will change, too. Keep tabs on this by checking in with board members when they leave the board about what would have been helpful to them in various stages of board service. Sit down with new board members six months into their term and find out, while it is fresh in their memory, what would’ve made their orientation even smoother.
It can be hard to prioritize yet another procedure for a nonprofit, but this is one that has a significant return on investment. If you can keep your board members feeling valued and effective, they can be the engine that drives a lot of growth at your organization. Effective board member orientation is one of the most important things you can do to maximize these incredible people you’ve assembled. Help them do their best for your nonprofit.
About Jeb Banner:
Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors. Founded in 2017 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. Boardable is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.