Without a doubt, the best time to engage board members is when they first join the board, and orientation should play a critical role in the process.
Assuming you have a strong process for vetting prospective board members, your organization probably has people joining the board with a passion for the mission, connections in various communities, and skills that the board can use. In my experience, most new board members begin their first term with an extremely high level of commitment and willingness to roll up their sleeves.
In my board development work as a consultant, I often interview board members and ask what their orientation looked like. Typically, half of the board members I interview indicate they have no official orientation, about a quarter indicate meeting with the board chair or executive director for a couple hours, and the remaining 25% recall attending a half day orientation with other new board members.
Their responses represent an interesting phenomenon. For the most part, we take people with a high level of passion, skills and connections but give them minimal or no advice about how to get involved at a leadership level.
As with most things in my career, I’ve learned this the hard way. Back when I was an executive director I used to ask new board members to sit through a boring half-day session with board leadership.
While better than no orientation at all, the common half-day session is not a very effective orientation tool. The human attention span isn’t really designed to concentrate on one topic for 3 – 4 hours, and that’s even truer in our digitally distracted world. If board orientation is an elephant, we want to eat that elephant in bite sized chunks over a period of months.
A couple years ago, I began asking boards to think about having an orientation process instead of an orientation session. Each organization’s process is unique, but the process might include attending information sessions one hour before regularly scheduled board meetings. Each session would have a theme, such as a session on board governance, one on organizational finances, another on programs, and a final session on fundraising. And each session would be designed to provide significant information that the board member can use in their new role.
The orientation process should also include tasks that board members are expected to do, such as joining a committee, making their first gift, soliciting their first gift, making their first public presentation on behalf of the organization, or liking the organization’s Facebook page. You get the concept: think about what you want your board members to do every year and include this in the orientation.
The idea is to get your new board members into the habit of being good board members early in their tenure. To help guide this process, it’s a good idea to give new board members a checklist with the various orientation sessions and tasks that all new board members perform. The individual board members can use this checklist to track their own orientation progress, and the organization can track each board member’s orientation on a spreadsheet.
This allows board leadership to publicly recognize board members as they complete the orientation process. Of course, praise at the board meeting is a good start, but completing orientation is a great time to award some branded swag – like a travel mug, pad folio, or lapel pin. This not only recognizes the board member but also serves to encourage other new board members to complete their orientation process.
At the bottom of this post, I’ve included a suggested checklist for a board orientation process. But remember this checklist is like a picture on the cereal box. You know the picture, with hearty red strawberries and blue berries atop a bowl of crispy flakes (with the hidden fine print reminding customers that this is a serving suggestion). This checklist is just a suggestion. Craft the process that is right for your organization and your board.