Improve Your Board’s Experience By Investing in Onboarding
Last month as I was preparing for a board retreat, it became clear that the board’s role, specifically related to how they could be effective community ambassadors, was unclear to most of the members. On the pre-survey, this was highlighted as something they wanted to work on and in further discussion with some members, they were honest about the weak support they got when they first joined the board and it was affecting their experience.
When I asked the CEO about the onboarding process, he said he didn’t understand why there was an issue because he had done a thorough orientation. And he did—great start! However, it takes more than one meeting to fully understand the board experience.
So when the board members were constantly asking the same questions, when they stopped coming to meetings, when they weren’t raising money, these were all signs they didn’t understand how to plug in effectively.
When you have a new class of board members joining your team, are you ready for them? Are you committed to investing in their experience so that it’s meaningful for them and of benefit to your nonprofit?
Or are you avoiding eye contact and hoping they just find their way?
If you want engaged, motivated nonprofit board members who are raising more money and helping you attract more people and increase awareness for your cause, it’s time to get serious about board development. This doesn’t happen by accident.
So how can you create a way for new members to be thoroughly onboarded? The secret: Think about ways to create feedback loops. In addition to conducting a highly-effective orientation, there are simple ways to facilitate the success of new members early in their term to increase retention and engagement.
Here are five ways to onboard your new members, so they are energized and participating in all the ways you need them to:
- Start a yearlong mentor program, and explain it to the new members at the orientation. My recommendation is to keep it simple and be sure to make the right matches—partner up folks who have something in common. The veteran mentors contact their new member within a week of being approved to welcome them to the board and see if they have any questions. They can introduce them to the board members at their first meeting, encourage attendance at social events and connect after any missed meetings and at regular intervals throughout the year. These mentors will report back to a liaison on the board development committee to keep the feedback loop open. Let’s not have any surprises!
- Make sure committee chairs who are assigned to new members reach out and welcome them to the committee, share the calendar of meetings, bring them up to date on any key projects, forward recent minutes and ask what questions they may have. The goal is to shorten the learning curve and help them feel welcome right away via this feedback loop with the committee chair.
- The board president schedules informal, individual meetings with the new members about 90 days into their first year. There is no need for a formal agenda—this is a simple discussion to see how they are enjoying their experience so far and help them to assimilate into the group. It’s also important that the new members feel they have access to the board president, who is technically their “boss.” This is another example of an important feedback loop.
- Encourage attendance at social events. One of the top two reasons board members remain on a board and continue to renew their terms is because of the relationships they have formed with other board members. When there is a board holiday party, or other activity outside of regular meetings, the mentor and others can reach out to promote attendance in the spirit of fostering relationships amongst the board. And if you haven’t yet included social events in your calendar, it’s time to start! To keep it simple, you could begin with adding a 30-minute social time before or after your board meetings.
- Mid-year check-ins are highly effective with new board members. It provides a feedback loop fairly early in their tenure and sends a powerful message about the organization’s commitment to a positive board member experience. A member of the board development committee and the CEO/executive director should schedule time with the class of new members and ask a few key questions to gather information about their experiences. This information is shared with the committee, and it determines whether any action needs to be taken. Over time, watch for trends—are committees highly effective? Do they feel like their opinions are being heard? What do they like best? What concerns them? Were there any crazy surprises that knocked them for a loop?
So remember: Communication feedback loops are essential throughout this process. In order for you to be effective at creating an environment that engages new members, you need to know what they think and value.
Let’s remind ourselves what all the fuss is about.
When you have engaged and motivated nonprofit board members who show up, they are your best ambassadors! When they are in the community telling the story of your good work, it converts into great PR and turns into money. The next thing you know, your board is the envy of the social sector. A professionally-run organization with strong leadership wins every time.
Cindi Phallen works with nonprofit boards and executives to build healthy boards that raise more money and execute on their vision. She is an author, educator, speaker, president of Create Possibility and a former ED. Known for asking the tough questions, she is on a mission to change the mindset of nonprofit leaders, so they move from intention to execution and maximize their impact.
Her popular book, “The Impact Triangle: The 3 Essentials to Accelerate Your Nonprofit Enterprise,” is recommended as mandatory reading for executives and volunteers. Cindi teaches fundraising at the University of San Diego, serves on various boards and is a Viewpoint partner for Social Venture Partners.
Cindi spends her free time jogging on the beach, snowboarding or watching her beloved Philadelphia Eagles!