Serving on a nonprofit board brings you immense opportunity for personal and professional growth. It is, however, a demanding experience, especially for new board members expected to contribute right away.
In “Be an Exceptional Board Member,” BoardSource bluntly describes board service as “probably the most demanding volunteer activity. [It] is not just an honorary position, a social activity with friends, or a simple team exercise. Above all, it comes with legal expectations and liabilities.”
Ideally, every new board member should go through a formal orientation process that begins the moment they join. Unfortunately, the typical nonprofit board of directors—just like the nonprofit it serves—faces resource constraints that may make onboarding a luxury.
Here are three steps you can take to become an engaged, contributing board member by your first meeting. Already had your first meeting? These steps can just as easily be applied. After all, it’s important that all new board members take an active role in their orientation, no matter how thorough (or abbreviated) the process is
Step 1: Ask for materials to review.
The more you learn about the board and its nonprofit before your first meeting, the more confident you’ll be. This includes if you’ve served on a board before. In “Board Recruitment Process,” BoardSource points out that every board of directors has a unique culture that new members must adjust to.
“All newly elected board members need a thorough orientation, no matter how extensive their previous board experience is,” BoardSource explains. "Every board has its special characteristics, personal dynamics, requirements for involvement, and a structure that needs clarification.”
Learn about the unique dynamics of your board and expedite your orientation by asking for materials such as:
- The board of directors manual (aka, the board book or board packet) for bylaws and other governance documents.
- The communications plan and meeting schedule. You may need to learn a board management software, such as Boardable.
- Financial statements and giving requirements.
In short, ask for anything that 1) makes you feel comfortable, and 2) educates you on what’s expected. And don’t be afraid of making micro requests. Everything you need may be theoretically covered in the board book, but there might be individual documents that will be more digestible than the board book’s legalese-filled pages.
Step 2: Make it a priority to meet everyone.
All boards should make new members feel welcomed and supported. That said, you shouldn’t assume that time will be set aside for even a basic meet-and-greet. In fact, as BoardSource and Charter Board Partners lay out in “Strategic Onboarding of New Board Members,” introductions are often a luxury.
“Boards frequently underestimate the importance of onboarding new members; instead, new members are carelessly added to board meetings, barely getting an introduction to their new colleagues around the table.”
What should you do, then, if time isn’t set aside for introductions? Here are some tactics:
- Introduce yourself by email before your first meeting; send a follow-up after thanking everyone. Check the board portal software for contacts.
- Grab one-on-one time with other members when you can, even if the only opportunity is when everyone packs up to leave.
- Have coffee with fellow board members, prioritizing by who seems most receptive.
Furthermore, don’t just focus on board members. Reach out to important figures at the organization, such as the CEO and the nonprofit’s point of contact for the board.
Also, don’t worry about feeling like a pest. Building trust is critical to a board’s success, and that means cultivating relationships. BoardSource and Charter Board Partners put it succinctly: “Boards function most effectively when everyone feels prepared and inspired to contribute in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling.”
Step 3: Seek out a mentor.
Ideally, the board chair or governance committee will assign you a mentor. Should that not happen, take the initiative to find one.
Who should you target as a mentor? In “Equip Your New Nonprofit Members to Be Effective on Day One,” Cyrus N. White, principal of The South Cabin Group LLC, lays out two qualities to look for.
“The best mentors are current board members who have been on the board long enough to know how it operates, but haven’t forgotten what it is to be new,” he says.
As you meet other board members, take note of which ones best meet that criteria, and then strike up a conversation. Also take notes on each member’s background. Use common ground or complementary interests to establish rapport and build trust quickly.
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