Nonprofit Matters - Dr. B.J. Bischoff


Helping new board members get oriented

One of the most overlooked aspects of nonprofit board development is the process of orienting new board members to their role of leading a nonprofit organization. Board orientations range from a comprehensive year long, month-by-month program of acquiring new knowledge about the organization to a congratulatory “welcome aboard” comment from the organization’s executive director.

Most Sonoma Valley nonprofit board orientation programs fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

No matter how much prior board experience with other organizations newly elected board members have, they all need a comprehensive orientation. No two boards have the same personalities, practices, and policies, so it is critical for all new board members to learn the ropes as soon as possible. It is usually the organization’s governance committee that has the responsibility for developing the board’s orientation program and determining how it should be implemented. Frequently, it is the organization’s staff members who assemble relevant documents for new board members.

According to Annie Bacon, executive director of Sonoma-based Seeds of Learning, “Once the person is on the board, we have a board binder, which is shared with the new member. After that point, they are invited by the executive director or a fellow board member to ask any questions.”  At the very least, new board members need a packet of information, in hard copy or in an electronic format, that includes key information. Examples of materials that should be included in such a packet are: contact information and background on all board members; organizational mission statement; overview of programs and services; annual report with financial statements from past fiscal year; by laws; personnel policies and staff overview; all policies and procedures previously adopted by the board; committee descriptions; current operating budget; and minutes from recent board meetings. Some larger organizations include a glossary of commonly used terms and a list of facilities where the organization operates programs.

Personal mentoring under experienced board members is another approach. Janet Constantino, president of Friends of the Sonoma Valley Library, stated, “Our new board officers attend board meetings regularly, or, once nominated, they do. The board officer whom they are replacing is the one to orient them. For instance, I’ll be resigning as president this fall. So, the newly elected president will sit next to me for at least one meeting. I will also meet with that person and go over the details of my job description and duties.” This personal contact with new board members is also helpful for determining committee assignment preferences, explaining important upcoming board decisions and events, and discussing personal fundraising commitments.

Many organizations set aside a day or half-day to integrate new board members and conduct annual planning. “Rotary has a one-day board retreat that is organized by the incoming president to set goals, approve the budget and get excited about the coming year,” said Vicki Whiting, president of the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley. An effective board orientation meeting will include: personal introductions; presentations by experienced board members on board roles and responsibilities; staff presentations about programs and services provided by the organization; defining expectations on the board’s role in fundraising; and an opportunity for discussion about the organization’s operations.

Annie Bacon added, “Orienting new board members is an important step to helping new members know where to focus their energies, make them feel welcome, and give them the support they need to get started.” By implementing a well-conceived board orientation program that fits within the culture of the organization, new board members will become fully engaged quickly and will gain a thorough understanding of the organization’s operations, ultimately leading to a deep commitment to the nonprofit’s mission.

Dr. B.J. Bischoff owns Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm that builds the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public sector agencies to better serve their stakeholders. She is President of Impact100 Sonoma, leads the Sonoma Valley Presidents Council and serves on the Sonoma Upstream Investments Portfolio Review Committee as an appointee of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Contact her at bjbischoff@bjbischoff.com.


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