Joining a board without a proper welcome and relevant education is like landing in a foreign country without a map or any knowledge of the local language and customs.
You might find yourself at your first meeting, trying to decipher strange acronyms or wondering why everyone is giggling at jokes you don’t understand.
Lacking a thorough orientation, new trustees are forced to sit on the sidelines for months or even years while they attempt to piece together their roles and responsibilities. It’s a uniquely frustrating experience – being asked to lead without a basic understanding of how leadership works in a specific organization.
Design your orientation process
Rather than put new board members in this precarious and unnecessary position, your board development committee (or some other sub-group of the board) can create an orientation process that addresses the needs of incoming trustees.
Here are five ways to give your new recruits a running start. Use these strategies individually or in combination: mix, match, and create your own approaches.
1. Board orientation book. Many nonprofits present new board members with a three-ring binder filled with bylaws, articles of incorporation, board agreement, list of committees and their functions, minutes from recent meetings, an annual report, financial statements, recent newsletters and brochures, and the like.
In a single resource, a new board member can easily find all the documents needed to understand, manage, and promote the organization.
2. Orientation event. Gather new leaders together – for no more than two hours – to talk them through the book, answer questions, introduce them to staff, and give a tour of the facility if you have one.
They can also meet with clients/customers/audience members who can offer their perspective on the value of your organization’s work.
3. The buddy system. Ask each continuing board member to mentor one incoming trustee. This task includes a personal visit, phone calls after the first few meetings to debrief, and being available to answer questions one-on-one as needed.
Experienced board members need education, too
Given the inevitable changes in your group’s circumstances and programs, even seasoned board members need to be “reoriented” from time to time. Consider adding the following two options to your orientation menu.
4. Annual “day in the office.” Encourage all trustees, both new and continuing, to volunteer one day per year to shadow a staff member whose work they know little about.
By participating in the daily flow of work, trustees will gain a better understanding of how the agency operates. Ideally, staff should pick a relatively interesting and varied work day.
5. Board retreat. Many groups schedule an annual retreat – away from the usual meeting place – to discuss strategic issues that don’t get addressed at regular board meetings. A retreat could focus on long-range planning, or changing your mix of programs, or marketing strategy, or expanding your capacity to earn income by charging for your services.
Depending on the topic, it may be wise to schedule the retreat when new trustees are available. By starting them off with serious, substantive discussions – and not just the usual board business – incoming leaders will begin their service with a deeper understanding of your mission, your work, and your emerging opportunities.
Note: This article is adapted from Andy’s latest book, What Every Board Member Should Know, Do, and Avoid. Discounts for multiple copies – get one for every board member!