compassIn a recent study, 75% of nonprofit executives said their board members weren’t sufficiently engaged. 3 out of 4! With numbers that high, you know there has to be a systemic issue.

Nonprofits are doing amazing things around the world. People work and volunteer at them to add meaning and value to their lives. So there’s no way tens of thousands of people are waking up each morning saying, “I wonder how sufficiently un-engaged I can be with a cause I value today.”

Starting nonprofit board members well

I’d be very interested to ask each of the 75% of frustrated nonprofit executives if they have any orientation for their new board members. In my experience working with nonprofits around the world, most don’t have a formal orientation program. Worse still, those that do rarely actually use it. These nonprofits are missing a huge opportunity! New board members need to know about the nonprofit, the people they’ll be serving with, and most importantly, what is expected of them. Too often though, nonprofit staff assume board members know more than they actually do. And in not wanting to “waste their time,” they short-circuit an important opportunity to deepen the relationship and clarify expectations.

The minimum components of a good board orientation

I happen to love doing orientations. Ideally, orientations happen on an ongoing basis, as new board members join the nonprofit board. But that’s challenging when you haven’t had a culture of doing orientations. That’s probably why I’m often brought in to conduct orientations with entire nonprofit boards – so that everyone gets off on the same foot.

In the orientation, you get to celebrate your nonprofit and the new people coming on board to help you. To me, the three most basic components of a board orientation are:

  1. A (philanthropic) history of the nonprofit

    In almost any training on nonprofit storytelling, you’ll hear that people want to be involved in a fight. To be part of a cause bigger than themselves. This is your chance to give that to them! Write out the history of the nonprofit but also tell them about it in person.

    • Why was your nonprofit founded?
    • What “wrong” was it created to “right”?
    • Who have been the heroes along the way?

    Whenever I can, I like to shape the nonprofit’s history around philanthropy. Your nonprofit wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the generosity of yourself and others. So talk about that. Talk about the people that scrimped and saved to get supplies. Share some of the crazy (for the right reason) things that supporters did to get the nonprofit this far. In telling this story, you’re inviting the new board member to become a meaningful part of this generous tradition. Whether your nonprofit has been around for decades or is an idea that’s just been around for weeks, you have a story to tell. This is your chance to tell it.

  2. An explanation of the gifts and talents each person brings to the table

    Your board chose each new board member for a specific set of reasons. It’s fine if their wallet is part of that reason, but it shouldn’t be the only part. So tell them what skills, talents, or abilities the board recognized in them. Tell them how the board has been working, and how their skills might help the board and the nonprofit work better or be part of a needed fix. Every board member should be able to say exactly what they’re bringing to that board. (Click here to tweet that.) Some people are self-aware enough to know; most will need you to tell them.

  3. An overview of expectations

    One of the biggest frustrations for board members is not really knowing what’s expected of them. Often the by-laws are vague and the stated expectations amount to little more than “come to meetings if you can.” By being clear on your expectations – attendance, giving, coming prepared, offering opinions – board members will be able to know if they’re doing a good job.

    In this section, they also need to know what they can expect of the nonprofit. As Simone Joyaux recently said in a training on firing lousy board members, you should expect board members to come prepared to board meetings. They should have read the materials and be ready to discuss. But in order for that to happen, you have to get the materials out with plenty of time. You can’t be emailing the documents while they’re on their way to the board meeting!

Start the new year with a renewed commitment to nonprofit board orientation

Take some time this week to review your nonprofit board orientation practices. What is working well? What could use fine tuning?

A strong board orientation can bring you and your board members peace of mind. Wouldn’t a bit more peace of mind be a gift this year?

What about you?

How about you? What are you doing for your board orientation? What parts do you find indispensable?

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