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If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd
Assign a peer mentor to every new member
The first few weeks and months of a new board term can overwhelm even the most experienced community leader. To help ease that process - and deepen the (social) learning experience - I recommend assigning a peer mentor to support each new member.
The rationale for this "one board thing" is multi-layered:
- Even if the new member is a nonprofit board veteran, there remains a lot to learn about your organization and board.
- A traditional orientation event and supportive materials (e.g., board handbook) may provide the foundation for learning about those entities. But (a) they necessarily cover only a portion of what there is to know and learn; (b) there are limits to what an individual can expect to absorb and remember from a single event; and (c) words on a page in a handbook provide a skeleton for understanding processes and policies, but they do not offer context.
- Questions always arise after formal orientation events end, and they continue across the early portions of a new member's experience. While they can - and should - feel free to ask the board president and organization CEO for clarification, having an additional peer resource expands the support available.
- A peer mentor offers a different perspective than the CEO and a slightly different view than even the president. He/she can offer empathy, background, and a peer-level view of board work and responsibilities. Having an additional resource for fielding routine questions also takes some of the load off of the president and staff leader.
- There is an additional benefit for the mentor: the chance to step back, consider, and articulate "how we do things" is a healthy opportunity to reflect and perhaps add a layer to his/her own understanding. (It's easy to get into autopilot mode, especially on the routine stuff.)
- Mentoring offers a new layer of situational leadership within the board.
What would a mentorship look like? Well, it can look like whatever you want and need it to look like. But a basic outline might be something like this:
- Assign and introduce an experienced board member to mentor each new member. The initial announcement would take place when the new member receives her/his invitation to join the board.
- An official introduction would take place at the new member orientation. The veteran attends that event, sitting with the new member, and having opportunities within that event for the pair to get acquainted and the mentoring relationship. The pair need not wait until the orientation to meet, but this provides a formal opportunity to launch the process.
- A formal mentorship should last at least six months, giving enough time for the new member to observe, participate, and uncover questions that may not arise until she/he has experienced the board's work.
- While the new member should feel free to call on the mentor whenever the need arises, the mentor should not wait for that contact. He/she should check in with the new member regularly, offering support. (How and how often that contact takes place will depend on individual preferences. The point is to not sit back and hope the new member will call with questions.)
- As the new member becomes a board veteran, he/she becomes the next-generation mentor.
NOTE: The "one board thing" series is designed to remind boards that enhancing governance effectiveness and satisfaction often can be sparked by fairly simple adjustments to the ways in which they work. For quick access to series posts, visit my "One Board Thing" Pinterest board.