Serving on a nonprofit board brings you immense opportunity for personal and professional growth. It is, however, a demanding experience, especially as a new board member 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.
But don’t worry. Follow these three steps to become a contributing board member by your first meeting. Already had your first meeting? These steps still apply. After all, it’s important that every new board member brings an active approach during orientation, no matter how thorough (or abbreviated) the process is.
The more you learn about the board and its nonprofit before your first meeting, the more confident you’ll be. This includes if you 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:
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 individual documents might also be available. They’ll likely be easier to understand than the board book’s legalese-filled pages.
All boards should make new members feel welcomed and supported.That said, don’t assume 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:
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.”
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.