Building Breakthrough Boards - Step 3: Orient

Step 3: Orient
If you have successfully completed steps 1 and 2, you now have a group of excited new board members who need to learn more about the organization, determine how they can contribute, and get to know the other board members. Step 3, orienting the new board members, establishes the context for their experiences and ensures a positive first impression. The new board members have agreed to volunteer their incredibly valuable time, and it should be carefully and intentionally structured. In step 3 we will cover three things:

  • Approaching meeting #1
  • Assigning mentors
  • Engaging talents

Approaching meeting #1
The first meeting must make a positive and productive first impression. The board may be orienting and on-boarding several board members at a time. Regardless of how many new board members are attending, the meeting must be well scripted and organized. Many boards will host an orientation meeting prior to the start of the actual board meeting. It is highly recommended that the orientation be a separate meeting and standardized so that it becomes a turnkey operation in the future.

Orientation should not be just about providing information. It should also be a social initiation, enabling new board members to become acquainted with the CEO, existing board members, and other incoming members in a friendly environment. The new board members will be “drinking from the fire hose” in their orientation, so try not to overwhelm them with too much verbal information. The most important things for them to learn right away are who is on the board and what everyone does. 

A guidance manual containing key information should be distributed to each board member. It should include bylaws, strategic plan, board member job descriptions, board member contact list, committee responsibilities and members, attendance sheet (more on this next month), organizational chart, financials, important policies, and any other board training materials you may want them to learn. This is too much to cover in an orientation meeting, so it should be assembled and provided for review in advance. You can then further engage the new board members by pairing each one with an existing board member who will serve as a mentor.

Assigning mentors
If a board could do only thing as an orientation activity, that one thing should be to assign mentors. Consider the situation that new board members enter: they may not know many of their peers, may not have a grasp of what the organization does, and may be intimidated about speaking up for several meetings. A mentoring process will help to connect new board members with more seasoned board members and facilitate a deeper understanding of the organization and culture.

First, start by identifying the most suitable current board members to be mentors. Then assign each one to a new board member in a one-on-one relationship. The mentor will be tasked with sitting with the new member at all meetings, connecting with him or her between meetings, reviewing the board guidance manual with the incoming members, discussing the organization’s history, directing the new member to an ideal committee that can best leverage his or her skills, and being the point of contact for any questions.

The mentoring relationship should last one full year, by which time the new board member should be fully engaged and well informed. 

Engaging talents
New board members are asked to join a board because of the strategic value they offer to the organization’s future. Often we have seen new board members left on their own to figure out how to participate and where to engage. In the orientation process, leveraging the value of each unique board member must be undertaken intentionally. New board members do not understand the culture and potential ways to add value to it, so it is up to the board chair, CEO, and mentors to work with the new members and help them think through where they can contribute the most. This is a two-way conversation, in which the board and new members talk about their ideas for generating value and expectations. Use the skills and talents of the board members being enrolled to ensure that they are engaged to the fullest.

In next month’s nonprofit strategy report, we will discuss how to engage the entire board through meetings and committees.