3 Big Ideas for Productive and Inspiring Nonprofit Board Orientations
Daniel, a client with whom we had worked on governance projects and the executive director of a nonprofit organization, reached out to us with a request: several board members, Deanna and Kyle, complained that they felt “confused” about their participation on the organization’s board of directors. Each had been recruited by a member of the nominating committee, who gave an overview of his or her commitment as a board member.
But once Deanna and Kyle joined the board, no one shared basic information about roles and responsibilities of board members, main responsibilities of the board as a whole or even the location of important board documents, such as bylaws.
A year passed, and Deanna and Kyle slowly got up to speed. But they felt frustrated that it had taken them a year to understand what they were supposed to do, and they believed that the new crop of incoming board members deserved better.
After looping Daniel in to their predicament, he asked us to design and facilitate a new board orientation that would start new board members off on the right foot. Daniel agreed that incoming board members could use clarification of their roles; he shared his hope that the orientation would set board members on a path of stronger fundraising for the organization.
This nonprofit is hardly alone: According to a recent Nonprofit PRO study, almost two-thirds of nonprofit organizations report that their single greatest challenge is making sure that board members are participating in fundraising activities and keeping them motivated to do so. Related to this, almost half of nonprofit organizations report challenges establishing clear roles and expectations for board members.
Here are the three big ideas we used to plan an inspiring and productive new board orientation:
Big Idea No. 1
- From the beginning, build board members’ investment in your organization’s work.
- Organizational leaders need to do two things during the new board member orientation. First, briefly remind board members about the inspiring work you’re doing. And then, right away, get their input on this work. The challenge here will be getting their input at the right level, which depends on the board’s role. In Daniel’s case, he took a few minutes to share the organization’s strategic priorities, and then new board members brainstormed in small groups how they might contribute to these strategic priorities.
Big Idea No. 2
- Your board members bring different strengths, interests and perspectives. The more you understand who is in the room and what they might contribute, the more your organization will soar.
- Start with a quick assessment activity that will help your new board members understand their preferred work style. For example, new board members might do a quick quiz that helps them determine their participation styles. (I have a great one on my website.) This helps new board members understand their own work style and those of others and begin to think about how the group can take advantage of the diverse gifts that board members bring. If you are able, take some time to review everyone’s participation styles and consider how the group will interact moving forward. This is an opportunity to model your organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by acknowledging the ways in which diverse perspectives and backgrounds deepen the conversation.
Big Idea No. 3
- There are diverse styles of processing information: some of your board members want the big picture, others want the small details. Some prefer to learn by reviewing written materials, others prefer to learn conversationally in small groups. Some like to share in front of the group, others prefer to write down their thoughts. Some of your board members will focus on financials first, others will look at financials last.
- As you design the agenda, strive for balance. Do provide written materials—beforehand, referenced during the orientation—for those who prefer to review information on their own. For the introverts in the room, create opportunities to write down their thoughts before sharing.
- Financial information and financial learning are critical: financial oversight and fundraising are among the most significant responsibilities of serving on a board. One way to boost everyone’s learning is to share organizational budgets and encourage those with a financial orientation to teach others how they interpret these documents.
Recently I ran into Daniel and asked him how the board was doing. He was all smiles: it was a great group. And after the orientation, they were immediately ready to jump into action. That created a strong foundation for the board members, who value the diversity within its team. The big ideas have helped them to work with each other, easing the frustrations of Deanna and Kyle and setting them on a path to successful fundraising.
As you plan a new board member orientation, or any meeting for board members, use this checklist:
- Have we inspired board members?
- Have we provided opportunities for board members to share their perspectives?
- Did we leave space for board members to talk about their diverse strengths and backgrounds, and capitalizing on that diversity?
- Have we designed for diverse learning styles and ways of processing information?
Have we put financial information and fundraising at the forefront and created more clarity around these areas?
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, founder of The Ross Collective, is a nationally recognized leader on board and organizational development and strategy. Committed to racial equity in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Ross supports organizations and individuals in practices that celebrate and amplify diverse voices and perspectives.