Sunday, October 17, 2010

Handbooks and orientation: Providing the foundation

What kinds of information, in what forms, does a new board member require for a fuller sense of her new responsibilities? What additional resources and interactions will help him develop a stronger understanding of the mission and the organization he has committed to advance?

New member orientation - bringing that new board member closer to active engagement - is as critical as bringing the right new recruit into the fold. But there are many ways to approach this essential process:
  • What should that orientation include?
  • What are the board handbook essentials? Is a physical handbook even necessary?
  • Should there be a face-to-face orientation event? Who should lead that event?
  • How do we acknowledge the different learning styles that exist for all of our members, especially as they join the board?
  • How do we support the new member, one month, six months, one year into the first term?
As I noted in my last post, I'm thinking deeply about these questions, both as a veteran board member helping to design an orientation process and as a new board recruit needing to come up to speed quickly on the work of a local nonprofit.

One point that should be obvious, but sometimes isn't: Orientation is not a one-time event. New board members deserve - and need - an overview of the organization and the board, and reinforcement of their new governance responsibilities. But one sit-down session, whether in person or via phone or other remote vehicle, is only the start of what a new board member needs.

Some kind of induction process is important. But the format can take different shapes, depending on your organizational circumstances and board member needs. In the case of the board I'm joining, that orientation involved a lunchtime session with the organization's executive director and a fellow new member. In the case of the process I'm helping to develop for the other board (of an organization that covers the entire state of Wyoming), that event will take place via teleconference. The point is, new board members in both cases have a chance to not just receive the whats, whys and wherefores. They also get to ask some initial questions and get a better sense of what they should be focusing on early in their service.

A pleasant discovery in my early days of service on the local board is the fact that all members have access to an online orientation focusing on a federal funding source. (In my first round of service on this board, I was constantly perplexed by the layers of complexity that comes with those grant dollars.) I'm not far into that online training process, but it's exciting to think about the model that it offers for other governance settings. In those cases where an online training component make sense, what would it look like? What would it cover? How might it be used to build upon those traditional orientation vehicles?

A board handbook - or, rather, easy access to details about the organization, the board, and other information essential to full and effective governance - also is critical to share with new board members. I added that qualifier, since I recently witnessed how one nonprofit board used a password-protected website (a wiki) for sharing and storing the types of documents that would typically be placed in a board handbook. I rather liked it, and it seemed to work well for members of the board. Setting up an environment of this type does require some planning, to make finding what members need quickly easy. But it's an option that more boards may want to consider, especially as the range of wikis and other free, collaboration-friendly sites continues to grow.

Whether it exists as a resource someone physically passes on to a new member or an online space where everyone has 24/7 access to board and organization documents, each new recruit needs to have a way to learn more about what is expected.

What do you consider to be the essential components of a board handbook, whatever the format? What do board members need to have at their fingertips to lead effectively? I'm interested in reader feedback on this.

One component that we added to the orientation proposal for the statewide board, that I hope receives the board's approval this week is a mentor plan. Each new member would be assigned a veteran board mentor who would serve as a peer guide and resource through the first six months of the new recruit's service. We all have those questions we don't quite feel comfortable asking - or re-asking. We often feel the need to have someone explain some of the minor to major mysteries of how the board really functions - the ways people interact, the different communication patterns and interpersonal dynamics that exist in any group. A board mentor will be a go-to person for those kinds of questions that always seem to arise, and an additional resource for the new member.

A likely secondary benefit of a mentor program: the veteran may find thinking about the topics that rise to the top of a new member's mind, pondering why we do handle things the way we do, and focusing on the mission through fresh eyes to be energizing.

I'm interested in engaging readers in a conversation about what you believe to be essential to effective orientation. I'm particularly interested in your experiences as a new board member, which may be very different from what we intend as executives and boards creating what we hope will be an ideal process. What helps to pave the way to effective board membership? What is essential to not just meeting the basic responsibilities but moving to true leadership?

How can we, as a board, make that process more fulfilling and fruitful for the peers who will soon be joining us?

1 comment:

Debra Beck, EdD said...

One outcome I'd really love to see here is a range of creative approaches - beyond the usual list of essentials and outlines - that will excite, engage, and otherwise encourage new members to truly focus on the leadership responsibilities of governance.

For example, what would an orientation process (and resources supporting it) look like for an organization adopting the Pollyanna Principles as a guiding framework? (I trust that Hildy has already written many times on this topic and will be willing to share some links here.) Without throwing out those components that are critical to the legal responsibilities, what else should be included to orient a new member to a way of governing that may be very different from the way they are used to serving?

Going a little wild as we envision a more enriching and effective way to this process definitely is appropriate. :)