Your nonprofit board is like the helmsman of a ship, steering it out of dangerous waters and toward strategic decisions. But preparing new board members to forge ahead — and excel at the job — takes navigation.
Here are six tips for getting new board members up to speed and keeping them on the right course:
1. Orient them to your organization. Board members need to understand your nonprofit. What’s your mission, who are your stakeholders and what services do you provide? Are there strategic goals in place? A formal orientation is an opportunity to give new members a foundation on which to perform. It’s also a chance to define board vs. staff responsibilities.
Be sure to highlight the organization’s continuous strides for excellence, and set the standards high. Consider requiring every new board member to spend at least a full day at your nonprofit during peak service-delivery hours, observing staff and volunteers serving clients.
2. Orient them to the board itself. If your board has a formal governing policy, present it to the new members. Let them know your basic expectations, such as board meeting preparation and attendance, committee participation and outside work required (researching new topics for board consideration, following up on decisions made, fundraising and so on). Inform them of the board’s committee structure, and make sure they know the responsibilities of board committees. Inform them of their role in strategic planning, budgeting and evaluation of the executive director.
Additionally, provide new members with an honest assessment of the organization’s finances and funding prospects, and alert them to any pending crises or upcoming challenges. Consider assigning them a mentor (a senior board member) for the first year.
3. Give them a specialty. Whether it’s the finance, audit, fundraising or program committee, a special assignment will give your new board members a defined focus which, in turn, invites strong performance. Let them choose where they want to put their energy, but steer them to a committee that matches their skill sets and experiences. For example, a retired English as a Second Language teacher might be a good match for a literacy organization’s program committee, or a banker for the board’s finance committee.
4. Set performance targets. Prepare a job description for individual board members after they’ve chosen their standing committee. Include a description of that committee’s responsibilities as well as general board duties. For instance, do board members need to read all staff handouts before meetings or raise a certain amount of money each year? Also keep attendance records for board and committee meetings for each member, and track their major accomplishments — a checklist is a handy tool.
5. Evaluate performance. The responsibilities outlined for a new board member (in the job description) and the board member’s actual performance may not jibe. But if a member accepts the responsibilities, he or she must also accept the accountability that comes with them. Your organization should know when, and how, to fire board members, if needed.
The board itself, not staff, should evaluate how board members have performed before their terms expire. Members can take a look at the checklist that’s been prepared and compare it to the board member’s job description. The board (and the board members themselves) can note any special accomplishments that may have been overlooked. Then, a tough decision must be made — to either reappoint or not reappoint a board member for another term.
Remember, sometimes accomplishments on a checklist don’t tell it all. For example, if a board member has been consistently disruptive during his or her term, the board might not want to invite that person for a repeat performance even if the checklist looks great.
6. Develop a continuing education program. A standing board committee can be responsible for not only identifying new board candidates but also choosing continuing education opportunities. This will give your board members a vehicle for staying up to date by, say, attending a program on significant Form 990 changes or new regulations. Clear goals, a plan to achieve those goals and appropriate funding will be the keys to the program’s success.