I am now ashamed of how I used to orient new board members, as a new Executive Director myself. I’m also aware of how inadequate the activities were I offered to integrate new board members and officers in a new leadership team. Even only a few new board members change the group dynamics and with deliberate planning can raise the ‘water level’ of the entire group.
Because of what I’ve personally experienced as an executive director and interim executive director, I now know this is a critical leadership formation and transition process for any nonprofit. Much more is needed and deserved by a volunteer board of directors than simply handing them a shiny board manual, after a brief tour, and over a 1-1 coffee with the ED or Board Chair. I am now acutely aware of how important a highly functioning, independent Board of Directors is as leaders to a successful nonprofit.
The quality of their leadership and engagement starts at their beginning – from board recruiting to the first convening of the newly assembled board for their first fiscal year together. (And, deep sigh because we all struggle for time) there must be multiple planned gatherings in the first couple of months for:
– Socialization (to build relationships and trust) among the full board. Board members often work hard for the organization when they feel a loyalty and commitment to fellow board members and don’t want to disappoint them.
– Information presented about the market conditions facing the nonprofit (Can be presented well by the CEO and help position him/her as the business/ operations expert)
– Special Board training, meetings or retreats with structured discussions about Finances; Operations and services; and Board roles/responsibilities (Including fundraising responsibility, being active ambassadors, and committee service) and working effectively together and with staff
-Discussions among board members about Strategic direction, Mission; their own reason and connection to the organization purpose and work; and the community’s need for the organization.
I know, as you read this list you’re thinking where would we find the time to get together for all this? Actually summer, with some scheduling luck could provide some opportunities for a special breakfast meeting or video conference to focus on the budget and financial reports and answer questions. You could also find time in August for a get together at a brewery for some socializing with structured mingling questions such as “Why I joined this board?” and “Why I think the organization is important to the community” and “What we do that I’m most proud of…”. Summer is also a good time for the CEO to share some market information or sector information about the services of the organization from national best practice organizations.
In addition, many boards don’t have a scheduled meeting in July due to vacation schedules. But there is time in August for a full board meeting that could be specially focused to form the newly reconstituted board as effective leaders for the coming year. August can also be the month for convening board committees in well planned ways, even if by web cam, for committee orientation to present purpose, objectives, and calendar and introduce each other. Be sure to have board members, rather than staff, visibly lead these meetings as role models for incoming board members.
Having a current board member assigned to be a “buddy” to an incoming board member can help both become or stay engaged about the mission and work of the organization. I’d suggest a buddy assignment be for the first six months of a board member’s first term. The buddy can email or text reminding of upcoming meetings and saying they look forward to seeing the new member soon. Buddies might also call new board members after every board meeting to see if they felt comfortable, needed more information or have concerns about any difficult topics that were discussed. As you already know, it’s important for new board members to “find their place” for leading and serving the organization during their first six months and getting in the best committee or volunteer role to best contribute where they’d be most valued.
The first three monthly board meetings should also be planned with agendas that allow and encourage ‘formation’ time and sharing among board members to increase their learning, understanding of priorities and knowledge of each other. Too often, board meetings proceed exactly as has become routine and everyone has to jump into ‘the middle of the book’ and figure out how to contribute. Early in the year, board meetings can include asking, “What’s a question you have really wanted to ask but haven’t?” Committee meetings are work. Full board meetings can be about connection – to each other, to the mission, to connecting decisions to solve problems or move strategy forward, and that build connection and engagement between members for the organization.
Each new fiscal year and new reconstituted board is where active engagement and effective board leadership begins. It takes pre-planning with the CEO, the governance or board nominating committee, and the Board Chair. If you’ve ever wondered in April and May why the board is not more engaged, think back about how the year of board service was begun in July and August. It takes scheduled time in meetings, gatherings, video conference calls, special events. But the investment of these hours pays off in board service, commitment, effectiveness and strong functioning boards.
“Meetings are at the heart of an effective organization, and each meeting is an opportunity to clarify issues, set new directions, sharpen focus, create alignment, and move objectives forward.” ― Paul Axtell, Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations