Effective Board Orientation: As Much About the Nature of Trusteeship as the Organization Itself
Board orientation for new or prospective members can be as varied as the organizations those trustees have been called to serve. However it’s defined, a strong orientation program is critical to effective board governance — a first opportunity for novice trustees to develop their understanding of board operations and form an awareness of how the board functions in relationship to the nonprofit agency.
It’s typical to think of orientation for on-boarding trustees as including things like meeting staff, touring facilities, and reviewing the policy manual and budget. Of course, there’s a strong social component involved as different members join the board. It’s not uncommon to have the board host a social event or meet-and-greet for new trustees with donors and other external leaders. A veteran board member may be assigned to mentor each newbie through the first few meetings — these “board buddies” can also answer routine questions that invariably arise over the course of the first year of service.
Nonetheless, those important functions tend to pale in comparison to the importance of the cultural aspects of trusteeship. Any orientation experience should provide an initial opportunity for incoming trustees to think deeply about what board governance entails. Orientation is when the expectations are set (or altered in some cases) for new trustees around the mission and purposes of the institution or agency, how the board contributes to those, and the normative roles and responsibilities of individual members.
Surprisingly, the orientation process can actually become more challenging with trustees who have served on other boards previously. There is an idiosyncratic element to the best orientation programs: New board members need orientation for your organization and to your board, which may demand setting aside preconceived notions about trusteeship developed during their earlier experiences.
Multiple factors combine to make orientation a meaningful experience for incoming trustees. A trustee handbook or manual (not the organization’s policy manual, but a document specifically to guide trustees) becomes the “textbook” to guide orientation and centralize foundational information about the agency and its history, mission, and basic operations; the board’s structure, functioning, and bylaws; contact information for key individuals, including trustee colleagues and staff leaders; a calendar listing meetings and upcoming events; and other resources that any member might find helpful. One or more face-to-face or virtual orientation sessions are also valuable for getting neophytes to the board updated on current issues involving the organization’s strategic plan, financial position, and impending challenges or problems.
Board orientation sometimes gets a bad rap for being pedantic, if not downright boring, so whatever can be done to minimize drudgery is important. Orientation is best scheduled at a time solely for that purpose, and preferably not squeezed in right before (or worse, after) a trustee’s first board meeting. At the start, new board members will feel like they are drinking from a firehose, so think about providing information in bite-size chunks over time, and not overwhelming them with everything at the outset. Keep things convenient, be respectful of their time, and make sure they know where to turn for help when questions arise. A more uplifting approach to orientation — one that highlights the special nature and real-world influence of board service — sets the stage for future development and heightened dedication to the role.
It is in this arena particularly that the cultural element can’t be given short shrift. Especially for those members who have never before served as a nonprofit board director, an orientation to the practices, actions, styles, attitudes, manners, behaviors, and attributes of trusteeship (what I collectively refer to as the PASAMBAs) is just as critical as learning about the organization. Cultivating an understanding of what governing boards do, and don’t do — as well as exploring the trustee’s relationship to the unique structure in every organization (e.g., fundraising expectations, role in handling complaints, fiduciary responsibilities) — is part and parcel of the orientation process.
Orientation for trustees can be as simple or as sophisticated as a board, working in conjunction with its officers and the CEO, wishes to make it. Larger, more complex organizations with bigger budgets may do a retreat, multi-day workshops, or even spread events throughout a new member’s first year on the board. Smaller agencies may settle for a written handout and a meeting or two with the executive director and board chair. No matter the size of the organization, past and present members themselves usually have a good handle on helping to design any orientation program — after all, they are in the best position to share the information that was indispensable when they began their board service.
In the end, the smartest nonprofit boards know a powerful orientation for their new members leads to more engaged trustees and, with that, improved governance overall.
Dr. R. J. Dunn is a writer, speaker and consultant on board governance in nonprofit and public organizations. A former professor, he is the author of multiple articles as well as a recent book, “The Change-Making Board: Consequential Governance for Public & Nonprofit Organizations.
R. J. is currently the principal consultant for Change-Making Board Services. He previously served as a board member for the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance and is currently a member of The Association of Consultants to Nonprofits. He splits his time between central Florida and southern Illinois.