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Tips for New Board Member Orientation

by Guest Blogger
We are pleased to present this guest post from Jeff Wahlstrom, managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting. He has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. For more on this topic, learn about MANP’s full strategic board recruitment toolkit.

mapI advise nonprofit boards to give some careful thought to how they will orient their new board members before they recruit them. Think about the message it sends to the board prospect if during your recruitment conversation you are able to say, “If you join the board, we will be hosting an orientation in August where you will have an opportunity to learn about…” You are immediately sending the message that this organization has its act together (whether you do or don’t!).

To do this, I suggest that the board spend some time, early on, considering the elements of the orientation process. One easy way to do this is to have the board spend time considering the following questions (with the answers captured on flip-chart paper):

  • What did you find to be the most valuable or memorable aspect of your own orientation?
  • What do you think every new board member needs to know before his or her first board meeting?
  • What do you think every new board member should learn or experience during his or her first 6-12 months on the board?
  • What kinds of orientations have you experienced elsewhere that might help us design a successful orientation here?
  • As we look at the list we’ve developed, how should we best deliver this information, and who should do it?

More and more organizations are coming to realize that successful board orientation can’t be done in a single session, and they are considering how they can provide orientation and board training throughout the year (understanding that board members who have been around for a while can often learn some new things, too). You might consider the potential of having a two-stage orientation process where the new board members get some initial orientation at the start and then come back in a few months (after a few meetings) to continue their orientation. At that second session it makes sense to ask each new board member, “Now that you’ve been on the board for a few months, what is it that you feel like you are still struggling to understand?”

Keep in mind that new board members are a great resource for evaluating your orientation process and helping to shape the next one, so it makes sense to build some kind of evaluation into the process (best done after they’ve been on the board a few months or more).

Ultimately, it is important to tailor the orientation so that it is manageable and makes sense for your organization. There is no single right way to conduct an orientation, and trying to adopt someone else’s process would be a mistake. Also realize that it is impossible to cover every topic and prepare board members for every eventuality. The key is identifying what new board members need to know in order to actively participate and become engaged in the work of the board.

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