Does A New Nonprofit Board Director Really Understand Your Organization?
By: Eugene Fram
The careful nurturing of a board member, whether for-profit or nonprofit, is critical. The pay-off of a robust orientation process is an informed and fully participating board director. The following are very similar occurrences in both for-profit and nonprofit boards:
The CEO of a transportation firm agrees to become a board director of a firm developing computer programs. He has risen through the transportation ranks with a financial background, but he knows little about the dynamics of the computer industry.*
A finance professor is asked to serve on the board of a nonprofit school serving handicapped children. She has no children of her own and has never had any contact with handicapped children, social workers or teachers serving handicapped children.
In these similar cases, the new director needs to become reasonably conversant with a new industry or a new human service field in order to be able to better apply policy development skills, strategic planning skills and to allow generative thinking.
On nonprofit boards, the problem is exacerbated when the new director often is asked to immediately join a specific board committee without being able to understand the board perspectives and the organization’s mission vision and values. Following are ways in which the nonprofit board can resolve this problem:
• Don’t appoint the new board member to committee until she has completed a board orientation program including a review of board procedures, attending several board meetings, has had visits with the staff, as they normally operate, and becomes alert to the major trends in the field. This ideally should take about six months assuming the director is employed full-time elsewhere.
• During this time, the chief executive and board president should be available to visit with the new director as frequently as she wants in order to respond to questions.
• Hopefully, the chief executive would informally meet the new director (and each established director) quarterly to review current issues and opportunities. ** In addition to the information presented at the board meetings, this will provide a better perspective of the board’s mission, vision and values.
• Ideally, the board volunteer should attend one staff meeting and one outside professional meeting to acquire a feeling for the topics reviewed at these gatherings and the field terminology.
If most of these actions can be accomplished within a six-month period, major blind spots are removed, and the new board member can then join a standing board committee. Now, reasonably understanding the organization and her own participation on the board, she has a background to make a substantial contribution for years to come.
• *Robert Frisch, Managing Partner of The Strategic Offsites Group, presented this type of example as a common one for business boards. SVNACD Meeting January 17th, 2013, Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University.
• ** For more details, see my book and blog site:
I like your resolutions for boards, if all boards were created equal; they are certainly to strive for.
All too often, once on the board, people are asked to, sometimes assigned to, committees before knowing enough about the agency.
It may depend on the size of the nonprofit, i.e., the governance level of the board. The Board’s Leadership Committee, Executive Committee, Nominating Committee, etc., can be proactive in building the board.
Being constantly on the lookout for talented individuals to fill the variety of skills, traits, and needs of the board, both now, and in the future, is essential for sustainability. Identifying potential future candidates for the board, and getting them engaged with your agency BEFORE inviting them on the board, provides them the opportunity to learn more about the mission, vision, values, outcomes of the agency, and to see if they “like” it. This also provides you the opportunity to bring them to a committee, subcommittee, task force, or planning for some event, to see if you “like” them.
Getting candidates engaged and educated before coming on the board can shorten the learning curve once on the board. Identifying the needs for the future, recruiting a pool of candidates to get engaged and educated, making the selections to join the board, then having a high quality orientation, are all key steps along the way. Once they are on board, then the chief executive, the board president, and the board development committee (if there is one), are tasked with keeping them apprised of nuances that could impact the agency and how to strengthen its sustainability.
And you’re right, if most of these actions can happen, in an appropriate and timely manner, your board and your agency become the beneficiaries, and more importantly, those you serve.