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7 Keys Series: Board Member Orientation – Hitting the Ground Running? (Or Just Hitting the Ground?)

By Patton McDowell

Patton McDowell, CFRE

Patton McDowell, CFRE

It is the last thing any Executive Director or advancement professional wants to hear, especially from one of your most engaged board members.

While serving as Vice President for University Advancement at Queens University of Charlotte, I was fortunate to be a part of an institution featuring a very engaged and committed board of trustees representing a broad cross-section of the Charlotte region.  One talented trustee was particularly effective and a big champion of our advancement efforts.  So, you can imagine my shock when he said:

 “You know, Patton, I love serving on this board. But it took me about a year to figure out what was going on and how to plug in.”

Yikes! It wasn’t just a functional responsibility that was missed – an entire year of potential effectiveness was wasted from someone who wanted to help and be more involved.  It was a real wakeup call, and it led to the development of the following steps to board orientation to ensure it wouldn’t happen again:

  • Avoid the Three Ring Binder Syndrome – Fancy binders full of content is important for the very studious individual, but most volunteers are unwilling to read an encyclopedia of such material.  Consider the creation of a simple, one-page summary that describes the programming, financial picture and fund development activities, so the new board member can understand current conditions and be effective immediately.
  • Orient to the Rule of Threes – Getting mired in the details of unfamiliar content is frustrating for a new board member.  Consider prioritizing focus on three things for new board members to review and understand.  What are the three things to look for on a financial report?  What are the three milestone events for the organization each year?  What are the top three program opportunities?  Narrow the scope to make it digestible, encouraging greater understanding and exploration as time goes on.
  • Create a Tour and Staff Introduction – It is important that a new board member meet the management team and understand the organization through their eyes.  A tour of the organization needn’t be exhaustive, but should allow board members to ask questions and see firsthand the impact of the work.
  • Encourage Sector Understanding – An effective board member will have an understanding of the sector. Set the tone of being a student of the industry or sector.  Identify a handful of comparable nonprofits and provide a profile to the new board member.  Identify aspirational organizations and indicate why they are the best in class.
  • Identify a Board Buddy – Some board members simply feel alone for the first year or two.  Creating a formal buddy system ensures that each new board member is paired with a veteran volunteer.  Engagement outside of the board room is encouraged, allowing for questions that might not be asked in a full board setting.
  • Have the Fundraising Talk – A classic mistake is waiting to have the discussion about giving expectations.  Board members need to understand the various ways they might participate, from the annual fund to planned giving and events.  New board members should understand the fundraising calendar, so they aren’t surprised when they are asked to purchase tickets to an event soon after making an annual fund gift, for example.
  • Engage in Leadership Discussion – It is never too early to begin the discussion regarding a leadership track.  If a new board member expresses interest in one day serving on the executive committee, that individual’s tenure can be shaped that way from the start.

It goes without saying that an engaged, educated board member is much more effective than one who is not.  And yet, we hear about “disengaged boards” as if that is entirely a function of individual responsibility and not a systemic failure.  It could be both, and there is something you can do about it.