Nonprofit Boards

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.


Building Breakthrough Boards - Step 2: Enroll

In this Nonprofit Strategy Report and several to follow,  we will deliver insight into our 5 Steps for Building Breakthrough Boards.  The 5 steps are:

Explore: Finding the right board candidates (August)
Enroll: Ensuring a good match (September)
Orient: Harnessing passion and commitment (October)
Engage: Leading fun and exciting meetings (November)
Evaluate: Understanding how to succeed and produce (December)

Step 2: Enroll        
How do you ask someone to be on your board of directors? How do you know that they will be a good match? How do you know if they will be engaged? These questions can paralyze many CEOs and boards, preventing them from making progress by effectively recruiting quality candidates to join their boards.

In step 1 of Building Breakthrough Boards, we learned how to identify new board candidates who can best support the organization’s strategy. In step 2, we are going to reach out and make the ask. Boards may start with 20-50 names of prospective candidates on a list, which requires a process to vet and enroll them. This process can be broken down into three steps:

  • Vet the candidates
  • Meet with candidates
  • Ask candidates

Before you can start holding meetings with potential candidates, you need to have two things in hand. The first is an informational packet about the organization, which should include a brief overview and a board member job description. Second, you will need a process for vetting candidates to make sure that they are a good strategic match and have a passion for the mission of the organization. The vetting process can include a tour of the operations, meeting other board members, and/or questions about the candidate that will help members to better understand the individual and the potential future relationship.

Once the board has agreed on how to vet candidates, it is time to schedule meetings with them. Ideally, if the board engaged in step 1 by exploring prospective candidates, there should be a large list of potential candidates who match the organization’s strategic direction. Every board member should be assigned a handful of candidates to invite to a personal meeting. This will be a challenge because not every candidate will want to invest time in learning about the organization. Those who agree to a meeting might assume that the purpose is fundraising, and they may be pleasantly surprised when the topic of joining the board is raised. The first meeting is an opportunity to get candidates excited about the organization and to learn about their interests and passions by using the vetting questions. 

The enrollment process can take time because it is about relationship building. If you are reaching out to savvy candidates, it may take more than one or two meetings to gain an agreement to join the board. Be patient, persistent and resilient. When you feel that the candidate is a good match and demonstrates interest and passion about the organization, ask him or her to join the board. The ask can be as simple as: “Our board feels that you would make an excellent board member and have the expertise to support the strategic direction we are moving in. Would you be interested in being part of our journey and joining our board?”

Recognize that the process of building a breakthrough board can be quite lengthy. It can take a full year or more to add 4 to 8 new, high-quality board members, depending on the level of participation from the board and CEO.

The enrollment process can begin today for any board of directors. As with step 1, all that you need is the commitment and urgency of the entire board.

In next month’s newsletter, we will provide insight into how to orient new board members once they have joined the board.

Building Breakthrough Boards - Step 1: Explore

The business models of nonprofit organizations are changing fast, however the board of director's level of governance to match this shifting landscape is far behind the curve.

In this Nonprofit Strategy Report and several to follow, we will deliver insight into our 5 Steps for Building Breakthrough Boards. The 5 steps are:

  1. Explore: Finding the right board candidates
  2. Enroll: Ensuring a good match 
  3. Orient: Harnessing passion and commitment 
  4. Engage: Leading fun and exciting meetings 
  5. Evaluate: Understanding how to succeed and produce 

Step 1: Explore        
One of a CEO’s most important responsibilities is to ensure a partnership with the board for the purpose of consistently strengthening and growing the board. To achieve this, the focus should be on constantly exploring potential board candidates who could serve as catalysts for moving beyond the existing status quo. The concept that “water seeks its own level” aptly defines the importance of building breakthrough boards. To achieve the next level of growth, impact, and success, you don’t just want people who can settle in at your current level and maintain what you’re doing now, but people who can go up a notch, raising past performance levels to new heights.

For example: If a CEO of an organization with a $10 million budget whose operations are spread regionally across several cities and towns wants to break through to higher levels, then that CEO would want to explore potential board candidates who have experience in leading companies with budgets of $20+ million and geographic footprints at a state level or greater. The reason for doing so is that, to achieve this breakthrough, the nonprofit will need leaders who are experienced with higher levels of productivity and organization. The ability to achieve higher levels of success will come from the advice, resources, social connections, financial ability, and previous experience of those candidates who have “been there, done that.”

The process may not be very complex, but it does require the board to commit to these three points:

  • The existing board must understand and accept the need to change and evolve, so that they are committed to and engaged in the process of change.
  • Board development must be a key area of focus of all board meeting agendas, with a dedicated governance or nominating committee leading the charge. This will ensure a consistent, organized, and disciplined approach.
  • The board should have a clear understanding of where the organization is and where it wants to go in terms of its size and scope. This is the single most important issue in building a breakthrough board. With this road map in hand, the experience and expertise of the new board candidates can raise the entire organization to new levels.

The exploration process can begin today for any board of directors. The only prerequisite is commitment and urgency from the entire board. Having a transformational strategic plan can help to guide board-building discussions, and a list of names can be generated using the future vision and direction contained in this plan as context. 

In next month’s newsletter, we will provide insight into how to enroll new board members once you have identified potential candidates.

Building Breakthrough Boards

The business models of nonprofit organizations are changing fast, but boards of directors are far behind the curve in making governance changes to keep up with the shifting landscape.

We are seeing massive disruption in every nonprofit sector due to technology, regulations, and many other factors. Donors and foundations have been trying to encourage nonprofits to prepare for this disruption for the last 5-10 years. Unfortunately, the pace of change in all nonprofit sectors is very slow. Donors and foundations have been trying to influence change through their grant-making strategy, but that too has been slow to evolve. The trend is moving away from small ($2,500-$5,000) grants to larger, more impactful gifts. With the increasing average grant size comes a decrease in the total number of grants available, making competition for grants tougher than ever.

Funders are also looking to ensure that nonprofit organizations will remain viable in the years to come. As a result, many of them are focusing more heavily on the following four areas as part of their giving strategies:

    1. Mergers, collaborations, and shared services: Large numbers of nonprofits are fighting for the same philanthropy. These organizations must find ways to work together with other like-minded nonprofits to leverage talent, share resources, and improve cost-effectiveness.

    2. Business model changes that integrate technology: Greater capacity, better resource management, and improved service can come from technology solutions, which must be adopted at a quicker pace.

    3. Ability to measure impact and capture data: Nonprofits must be able to clearly quantify how their programs are moving the needle and fulfilling their mission. They must establish credible metrics and capture reliable data to support higher-quality decision making.

    4. Building capacity to ensure a strong and capable workforce: Funders recognize that nonprofits need to attract talent to achieve their mission. Most organizations are stretched very thin with staffing resources to tackle new initiatives.

These shifts in funding strategy are not enough to fully drive change. Nonprofit organizations must take on the challenge of becoming more dynamic in the rapidly changing marketplace. This journey begins by building a breakthrough board of directors capable of aligning their organization with future realities.

Great nonprofit organizations build great boards. Boards can either maintain the status quo or lead their organization to new levels of governance, management, and achievement. It is more important now than ever for nonprofit organizations and their boards to be dynamic and adaptable. The boards of the future will need to be more capable, savvy decision makers and stronger players in driving change and adaptation. Boards must be able to think beyond traditional governance to ensure the viability of their organization. 

In the coming five blog posts (August–December), we will deliver insight into our 5 Steps for Building Breakthrough Boards, starting with step 1 in August. The 5 steps are as follows:

  • Explore: Finding the right board candidates 
  • Enroll: Ensuring a good match 
  • Orient: Harnessing passion and commitment
  • Engage: Leading fun and exciting meetings 
  • Evaluate: Understanding how to succeed and produce