Saturday, January 28, 2012

Constructing a better board orientation

We know we need to do better in orienting new members of our nonprofit boards. I shared my rationale - and my general vision - for what and why in last Monday's post. But what would it actually look like?

I'm feeling challenged to translate what I laid out last week into a sample orientation process. If I follow my own counsel, I'm envisioning a basic framework that looks something like this:

Before the orientation event 

Remember, while you may schedule an event designated as new member orientation, the actual experience is an ongoing process that began in recruitment. Here is the minimum foundation that we laid out in advance of the event I'll be describing in a moment.

In recruitment:
  • The prospective member learned of general expectations of individual board members. You offered a verbal overview in your introductory conversation(s). When interest was expressed, you followed up with a more formal discussion and a packet of information that included the board member job description. If they are not already involved and deeply familiar with your organization, you've also provided them with additional information to help them better understand your mission and your work. That may be in the form of print materials. It also might be links to your website, videos, etc.
Once he/she has accepted:
  • You immediately placed into the new member's hands a copy of the board handbook or access to the electronic board portal that serves the same purpose. Yes, in advance. This gives the new member time to get acquainted with the full range of duties and the structure in which the board works. This eliminates any excuse for spending the orientation event reading the handbook's contents to participants. It also gives the new member a chance to identify questions that will drive that event and make it more germane to their early informational needs.

During the orientation event

They've accepted. They're ready to serve. Now it's time for the formal orientation event. My example is two hours long. There's nothing magical about a two-hour time frame; your orientation may be longer or shorter than that. But my arbitrary two-hour framework acknowledges the physical limits of many adult brains and bodies. You're probably holding this event at the end of an already long work day. What you're sharing isn't completely unfamiliar, but it is still "new." Don't overload them during this important group learning experience.

Welcome and introductions (20 minutes*)
  • Not just names and work affiliations. Ask them to share something that connects them to each other and the commitments they now share (e.g., "describe at least one compelling reason why you agreed to serve on this board").
The responsibilities of this board (40 minutes)
  • General discussion about roles and responsibilities, focused primarily on their questions about the job description, what's in the handbook, etc. Deepen their understanding and clarity: "What exactly does this mean?" "Give us examples of how members 'promote XYZ Agency in the community'." Highlight what you want, but let their questions drive the conversation.
The board's leadership role (30 minutes)
  • Discussion of the board's unique leadership contributions, internally and externally. Focus on their roles in advancing and protecting your vision and mission - those specific duties that only the board fulfills, by charge and practice. Talk about the critical community outreach work that they do, in their daily lives as well as in formal settings. Talk about how the board defines its own "success." Examples are critical here. While the CEO may have anecdotes to share, they must come primarily from the veteran board members in attendance (board president and mentors). This needs to be peer-to-peer.
My leadership potential (20 minutes)
  • Time to reflect, individually and then as a group, about the ways in which they want to get involved. Ask them to volunteer one or two thoughts about where they see themselves making an early contribution. Connect those ideas to the reason(s) they committed to serve. Identify how you will facilitate those first steps.
Continuing the journey (10 minutes)
  • Bring closure to the event by identifying topics that require deeper explanation or exploration. What aspects of their board service are still a bit cloudy? Where are they feeling less confident? Identify those need areas and commit to following up within the month.
  • (Re)introduce them to their veteran board mentor, who will act as their informal guide for the next six to 12 months of service.

After the orientation event

The learning journey continues. New board members need and deserve support as they begin their service and expand their understanding of the responsibilities they've assumed. What type of support you provide depends primarily on their identified needs. Following are some examples of ways to continue the learning process for new members:

  • Follow up within the week from the board president and board mentor (a must).
  • Address their identified learning need areas. How depends on the topic and level of need. It may require a more detailed session, sharing additional documentation, a tour, etc. Make sure you follow up, and that you do so in a timely manner.
  • Regular check-ins should be made by the board mentor. Don't assume the lack of a phone call means the new member has no questions. 
  • Build in ample time for questions during board meetings, a benefit for all members (and an essential part of governance). Be prepared to offer context for new members coming into existing discussions. Don't single them out, but be sure they have opportunities to clarify, question.
  • Assign new members to an active committee that fits their interests and strengths. It gives them a chance to get involved in meaningful work, in ways that are comfortable stretches for them.

I have additional thoughts about each of these areas, but I'll close this off and instead look forward to hearing your observations and recommendations.

* Scheduled times may work perfectly as outlined, or they may simply offer a suggested level of emphasis.


Nancy Iannone said...

I really like the process you've outlined here. Starting from the first contact, there is an easy progression of involvement that builds on the step before.

Although I've used somewhat similar steps in previous orientations, there are some pieces you've added that I really like. The role of the mentor in orientation and support is so valuable and often gets missed. Helping new board directors find early ways to be involved as another great idea for building engagement and commitment.

Thanks so much for this gift! Now you've got my brain going, I'll be thinking about orientation all weekend.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

So glad for this feedback, Nancy. I'd be curious to hear more about how you've incorporated these elements and how they've (re)shaped the orientation process for your new members.

Jane Garthson said...

Excellent! I love how you built reflection time into such a short event, and of course that you including mentoring.

I know organizations will add tours, introductions and such - our role is to help them go beyond that with approaches like this.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Jane, good to hear from you! That need for reflection is something we *hope* is an ongoing part of the governance process. But, alas, too many meeting agendas are "action-packed"[read "report-filled"] - and too many orientations carry that same theme. Fill 'em up with info and hope they survive. :)

There will always be time for those tours and ongoing detail sharing. Ease them in by connecting them to the larger purpose that drew them in the first place, that's my bias.