The board of a nonprofit is one of its primary assets. This is certainly true for smaller and start-up organizations without the resources to hire all of the staff needed. In these cases, the board often fills, not only the governing role, but also much-needed staff roles in areas such as bookkeeping, marketing and legal counsel.
But the board is also a primary asset for larger organizations with a full complement of professional staff. The board in these mature organizations is essential to capital campaigns, mergers and acquisitions and other major strategic initiatives.
Clearly then, having new board members take a year or more to get up to speed is a huge waste of talent and resources. Not only is this bad for the nonprofit, it's also a drag for the volunteer board member.
So what's the answer to board members reaching their peak potential early in their terms? Onboarding.
The primary cause of board members taking a year or more before becoming productive is a lack of effective new member orientation. Too many nonprofits don't do board orientation at all. This is a shocking gap, causing new board members to muddle along, "figuring it out over time." The long-term result? All sorts of problems, including board apathy (nonattendance), micro-managing, and even negligence.
Of those nonprofits who do board orientation as standard operating procedure, much of what's being done isn't hitting the mark. A lot of what is called "board" orientation is actually focused more on what staff are doing and need to know. This is simply because staff members are designing and giving the orientation. The board's orientation should look substantially different from that of the staff because the job is not the same.
If these are issues for your board, consider the following:
1. Initiate a board-led orientation process for new board members. Having it board-led will help ensure that the material included is what a board member needs to know. Another plus is that current board members will feel more engaged and get to know new members from the outset. (If you need help, Chapter 3 of Nonprofit-KnowHow gives exactly what to cover.)
2. Create a board partner program that pairs a seasoned board member with a new one. This way, as the new member is getting up to speed, s/he has someone to turn for questions and support along the way. The experienced board member can also check-in to ensure that the new member is feeling good about their role and participation. (Chapter 3 also describes this process.)
3. Conduct an annual board self-evaluation to determine what more should be included in onboarding process, as well as other ways the NPO can optimize board effectiveness. (Chapter 1 of Nonprofit-KnowHow includes a comprehensive Board Self-Evaluation.)
The bottom line here is, for board members to add value they've got to understand the job and the nature of the organization they serve. And this understand must be from the board perspective. Lack of understanding is a big culprit in underperforming nonprofit boards. Therefore, energy spent on effective onboarding processes reaps huge dividends, including board productivity from day one.