Monday, January 23, 2012

'Fly on the wall:' Better board orientation

If I were a fly on the wall, observing a new board member orientation unfolding in the way it should be structured, what would I see?

I knew up front that the focus of my recent interview with Renee McGivern for her Nonprofit Spark podcast would be challenging our typical conceptions of new board member orientation. I was prepared to share - and did share - observations and recommendations on the topic. I've often discussed the importance of welcoming new members onto the board in deeper and more useful ways in this space.

But Renee's "fly on the wall" question caught me slightly off guard in the moment, and it prompted a lot of post-interview thought about exactly what that better way of orienting would look like. Since I've never explored the topic here in any comprehensive way, I'm feeling challenged to articulate my vision of what that better new board member orientation would look like for a typical nonprofit.

I'd like to open with three assumptions about orientation that underlie my vision.

First, orientation is more than a single event, scheduled after a prospect has agreed to serve on your board. It began long before that 'yes' was uttered. The potential board member knows, because you've specifically outlined in the recruitment process:

  • The mission and vision of your organization and the basic programs it provides in advancing them.
  • The specific expectations of your board - not only the bottom line legal and fiduciary responsibilities but also the larger leadership roles of your governing body.
  • Their specific expectations - why you are recruiting them to serve now. Do you need their particular professional expertise? Are you interested in reaching out to new segments of the community via their connections to that community? They need to know, up front, what they are being asked to bring to the table beyond the general board member job description roles.

Second, new board members have access to the specific details needed to govern from the moment they accept. Whether it is a hard copy board handbook, an electronic board portal used to store key board documents, or some other resource, essential documents and data (e.g., the bylaws, minutes, financial statements, statistics on clients served) are readily available to them. They are smart, successful people. You do not need to spend this orientation session reading to them what they can review at their own convenience.  I'm not saying that you have no need to review some of those details in this formal setting. I'm saying do not waste precious time reciting all of those details at this induction event.

Third, no matter how open and user-friendly you make an orientation event, new members will feel overwhelmed and they will not remember everything they "need to know." You can do your part by resisting the urge to dump truckloads of details on them in one sitting, by reminding them that they have access to most of those details when they need them (e.g., the handbook or portal), and by assuring them that questions - now or later - always are welcome.

So, with all of that as a foundation, what would that fly on the wall see? I'm not sure that what follows leads naturally to a detailed agenda (though it may help me develop one for a future post). But here are my 'musts' for a better board orientation event.

New members aren't outnumbered by too many 'insiders' in attendance. At most, a two-hour event would include the new members, the board president, the CEO and the new member mentor(s). (More on the mentor later.) They already are feeling overwhelmed.  They will have one or more terms to get to know the rest of the board and staff. This session needs to be a comfortable, safe place for exploring - with their fellow newbies - what it really means to serve this agency. Confronting them with an endless parade of people, especially insiders bearing PowerPoint presentations, only adds to the anxiety and the potential for overload.

The session and its content focus primarily on the board and their roles within it. The basics aren't new, because they were outlined in recruitment. This session gives them an extended opportunity to explore what that really involves: how the board accomplishes its work (e.g., the way that the board is structured to fulfill its roles, the committees or other work groups that facilitate that work, the routines and events of the board's year). It gives them a chance to go into greater depth about what that looks like and an opportunity to see how they will go about finding their place as active members. Additional information about the organization and its work also is inevitable, but it isn't the primary topic for this session.

It connects the board's collective role, and their individual role, to the heart of the organization and its work. Too often, we focus all of our energies into describing the logistics of service - the whats and hows of being a board member. Those are essential to understanding what is expected, but they're not enough. If we've recruited well, we've attracted new members who are passionate about the work that we do. They want to connect, directly and indirectly, to the organization's success. Tell stories, offer examples, that give life to the work that you do. Make sure that some of those stories illustrate the board's role in that impact. Link their coming leadership roles to what prompted them to say yes in the first place.

More time should be devoted to new members' questions than presentations by others. Remember, they already have basic information about your organization and their responsibilities. This is a time for conversation, led largely by the questions they already have and those that will arise as you dig deeper into what it means to serve. It's also time for them - and you - to check assumptions about how this board functions as a team and a work group. I mentioned in the interview the perils of having multiple people enter the boardroom with different ideas about how how boards work. Discussing this up front, and getting a sense of how governance is enacted in this board, is critical.

This orientation event marks the beginning of the next phase of their board learning journey. When they leave this session, they should:

  • Know who has been assigned as their board mentor (and, preferably, met that person). They know that this person will serve as a peer guide, a person upon whom they can call with questions. The mentor is an additional resource who remembers what it feels like to be new.
  • Know that there will be other opportunities to learn more about specific aspects of their work and about the agency, because yours is a board where learning is valued and embedded in their work.
  • Know that you will be offering additional focused sessions on topics of concern to new members (e.g., a follow-up specifically targeting the agency's financials).
  • Know that they will have opportunities to tour the facility, if doing so was was not possible during this initial orientation.

A word about what it means to be new...

Renee and I addressed it in the interview, but I'd like to offer a brief postscript on what I hope is obvious: it takes time to move from new recruit to active, seasoned veteran. In the world of communities of practice, where my research lies, that process is called legitimate peripheral participation. Renee and I agreed that we shouldn't excuse new members from stepping up and getting involved, that we should find meaningful ways to engage them early in the board's work.

But orientation is a process, not a one-time event. We facilitate that process by demonstrating to new members that they are supported as they begin their service. We build upon that process by assigning them meaningful activities, via committees and other opportunities to serve, to demonstrate how they will contribute to the organization's success. We enhance their learning and their commitment by structuring meetings for lively, governance-focused discussions where they are always expanding their potential to lead. We give them (reasonable) time and space to find a place where they can make a meaningful contribution.

Now that I've had the chance to gather the various ideas about board orientation that have been floating in my brain for years, I think I'll try to come up with an agenda that puts what I've described here into some actionable shape that you may find useful. It's a logical next step for me, and an additional opportunity to engage you in a conversation about how we induct our new board members.


Bonnie Koenig said...

Debra - This is excellent. An important piece that most Boards leave out (as they think they don't 'have time') is the need to build a community. You put this front and center.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Your wisdom on this means a great deal, Bonnie. I appreciate your articulation of the community component, bringing that out for further discussion. To be honest, I was so in the moment as I wrote this that that theme was largely invisible until you raised it here.

On Da Road said...

Good insights that were nicely put together. I never really looked at it from the new members point of view. Thanks for the post.

Alexandra Peters said...

Yes! Conversation , and not just being talked at! There are layers and layers to be uncovered - about the organization, how it works, the people involved, the board and how it works. Let the new people ask and talk about what they need to know.

But I would add that "orientation" is an ongoing process for everyone. Boards that discuss regularly how and why they are making their decisions, and who ask questions all the time, will constantly be reorienting themselves. That's the best possible orientation for new and old members.

Love your blog, Debra!

Kevin Monroe said...


I appreciate your thoughtful approach to what is often a perfunctory (and in many cases pitiful) task. I like the idea of orientation as a process vs. an event and think that the pull approach - answering questions is a great improvement over the push (or dump) of endless slides.

Board service is a journey, but we can enhance the journey by getting off on the right foot and re-assuring people of their commitment rather than causing them to question and second guess their decision by a poorly planned or poorly executed orientation.

Marion Conway said...


Thanks for this post on Board orientation. Its given me some things to think about and some ideas to write on this subject myself.


Debra Beck, EdD said...

My apologies for this delayed response to the great feedback provided since my last reply. A wild stomach bug flattened me for the last 48 hours, and I'm just now in 'upright' mode. My gratitude is great, if a bit behind schedule. :)

Your collective wisdom on this is much appreciated!