The careful nurturing of a new board member, whether for-profit or nonprofit, is critical. The pay-off of a robust orientation process is an informed and fully participating board director. The following are very similar occurrences in both for-profit and nonprofit boards:
- The CEO of a transportation firm agrees to become a board director of a firm developing computer programs. He has risen through the transportation ranks with a financial background, but he knows little about the dynamics of the computer industry.
- A finance professor is asked to serve on the board of a nonprofit school serving handicapped children. She has no children of her own and has never had any contact with handicapped children, social workers or teachers serving handicapped children.
In these similar cases, the new director needs to become reasonably conversant with a new industry or a new human service field in order to be able to better apply policy development skills, strategic planning skills and to allow generative thinking.
On nonprofit boards, the problem is exacerbated when the new director often is asked to immediately join a specific board committee without being able to understand the board perspectives and the organization’s mission vision and values.
Following are ways in which the nonprofit board can resolve this problem:
- Don’t appoint the new board member to a committee until he/she has completed a board orientation program including a review of board procedures, attending several board meetings, has had visits with the staff, as they normally operate, and becomes alert to the major trends in the field. This ideally should take about six months assuming the director is employed full-time elsewhere.
- During this time, the chief executive and board president should be available to visit with the new director as frequently as he/she wants in order to respond to questions.
- Hopefully, the chief executive would informally meet the new director (and each established director) quarterly to review current issues and opportunities. In addition to the information presented at the board meetings, this will provide a better perspective of the board’s mission, vision, and values.
- Ideally, the board volunteer should attend one staff meeting and one outside professional meeting to acquire a feeling for the topics reviewed at these gatherings and the field terminology.
- During the first year, a senior board member needs to be seated next to the new person at meetings to act as a “host” for the new director
If most of these actions can be accomplished within a six-month period, major blind spots are removed, and the new board member can then join a standing board committee. Now, reasonably understanding the organization and her own participation on the board, the new board member has the background to make a substantial contribution for years to come.