Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Board Orientation: It Begins with the First Conversation

How well does your organization orient its board members to their work? I know organizations that do a great job of it and organizations that have never given it a passing thought. Stop and ponder this for a moment: are people born with the expertise to serve on a nonprofit board?

Then how does one acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be an effective board member? I suspect that many would say that they learned by watching others and doing the work assigned to them. All well and good, I suppose, if we simply want board members who rubber stamp the leader’s decisions. Now stop and ponder this: the nature of nonprofit work and funding is increasingly complex due to any number of things, including increased professionalization, greater scrutiny from government, regulators and funders, heated competition for audience and dollars, and relentless escalation of fixed overhead costs. This is the nonprofit world as we now know it. It is not for the faint of heart.

What ways can board and staff leaders help lessen the steep (and getting steeper) incline of this learning curve?

It certainly begins with an orientation to an organization. Those organizations that do provide formal orientation programs for board members usually do so after they have been elected to the board. I’d like to suggest that orientation really starts at the first contact with an individual to discuss board service. This initial conversation is framed by a forthright explanation of wants and needs of the organization. Every subsequent conversation with a candidate will explore aspects of the organization in more depth and will be supported with all kinds of material, from the board job description to the strategic plan. It is all orientation.

Pre-board election orientation is critical to separating willing, engaged candidates from those who are unable to serve or unskilled for the task. I like doing indepth orientation sessions with candidates before election, because I think it gives both the person and the institution the opportunity to say “not the right fit”.

What are some of the elements of an indepth orientation session? Here’s my list:

  • Top-to-bottom tour of the nonprofit’s facilities with staff, leaky roofs and cramped work spaces as well as the beautiful lobby
  • An honest, no-holes-barred sit-down with board and staff leadership to discuss mission, program, finances, planning; organizational strengths and weaknesses; governance challenges; successes and failures -- this is your opportunity to lay it all on the table
  • A review of the board job description
  • A notebook or CD of supporting material
  • Plenty of opportunity for Q & A
  • A deadline for decision
Photo: Brújula | Compass by [parapente]

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