How to Craft a Nonprofit Board Orientation Strategy

Board orientationPlease don’t leave your new (or old for that matter) board members dangling!

Being a board member is not something we’re generally taught. In fact, it can be a complete mystery. Folks feel proud to have been recruited to join your board, and excited to begin their service, but… what happens next can mean the difference between a fulfilling experience and a disappointing one.

Do you have a board orientation strategy?

I don’t just mean in a dusty handbook somewhere on a shelf or in a file no one can find. I mean a vibrant orientation approach that kicks in the moment your board candidate says “yes” and, subsequently, as soon as they’re voted in by the full board.

Recruitment is just the tip of the iceberg of building an effective board.

It’s an important “tip,” don’t get me wrong. And all too often it’s handled poorly, leading to nothing but problems down the line. One of the most common complaints I hear from nonprofit staff is their board won’t help with fundraising. And the most common reason is the board members tell me: “I wasn’t told I’d have to help with fundraising,” or even worse “I was told I didn’t have to fundraise.

Don’t put yourself in the bait and switch mode.

From the get-go, explain to prospective board members what’s expected of them. All should be involved in some way in giving and getting. Once they sign on, solidify this agreement and their critical role as ambassadors, advocates and askers during the orientation process.

What to Include in a Board Member Orientation

1. Vision, mission and values

Never assume board members have a full understanding of the depth and breadth of your purpose and why, should you cease to exist, it would be a sad day indeed. Honestly, I’m blown away by how many board members cannot answer these three basic questions:

    1. What is your nonprofit’s mission in one sentence?
    2. How do you approach your mission differently than similar nonprofits?
    3. What would happen should your nonprofit cease to exist?

Hopefully the lion’s share of your new recruits were inspired to join the board because of your vision, mission and values. But they’re still unlikely to have a broad picture unless they’ve been actively engaged with your over a multi-year period. And sometimes folks join to pad their resumes or because a friend or colleague asked them. They may know you’re a “good cause,” but not much more beyond the general area in which you work (e.g., climate change; arts; education; social services; health care; medical research, etc.). “Nice,” but not compelling enough to set these board members’ hearts on fire. And that’s what you need!

PRO TIP: Orient your recruits fully around the why, what, and how of your existence. This is your body and soul.

2. Stories

The human brain is wired for stories. It’s the easiest way for us to take in information, so it’s a prime way to communicate the impact of your work to board members. A good story conjures up emotions that link to people’s values.  Whatever emotions a board member feels when they read/listen to your stories will translate into how they feel about your organization. And how they share what they feel with others.

PRO TIP: The other benefit of good stories is they’re easy to understand. Too often when I ask nonprofits about their mission, they’ll tell me “well, it’s pretty complicated.” People can’t easily relate to complexity. In fact, it makes them want to run the other way. Too daunting; too much work! Come up with a few simple stories, each with a beginning (the problem), middle (the solution) and end (the outcome). Also think about how you want your board member to feel when this story is shared with them.

3. History

Your history is another story – that of your origin. Generally it says a lot about the values that underlie all you do. Google just about any nonprofit and read their “about” and/or “history” pages to see what I mean. Here’s one of my favorites from Project Open Hand in San Francisco.

Project Open Hand Landing Page

In this example, the values of love, compassion, nourishment, health and community jump out. It’s what they’ve always been about, even as the mission has evolved.

PRO TIP: It’s important for all board members to know where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you’re headed. This gives them ammunition, and motivation, to share with others.

Take a look at what you’re telling folks on your website. Is it up to snuff? If not, fix it. If so, be sure to share it with new board members.

4. Brand

Your brand today is what constituents perceive your value to be to them. It’s the essential idea underlying your organization’s identity. Much more than a logo or color palette, it’s the impression folks have of you. It’s what you stand for, believe in, behave like, and how you are perceived by those who conduct business with you or otherwise experience interaction with you. It’s the collective sum of who you are as an organization.

Your messaging around your brand needs to be consistent, which is why it’s so important to share this information with board members as they begin their tenure.

PRO TIP: A great place to find what folks think of you is to look at Yelp reviews (e.g., of your programs, services or volunteer programs) and to send your own constituent surveys annually. I conducted a communications audit for a theater company and found reviews of their performances consistently mentioned two things: “intimate” and “high quality.” Their cozy family feeling is as big a part of their brand as their growing renown and award-winning critical reviews.It’s what distinguishes them from other theaters in town.

4. Devilish details

Board members are “insiders” and need to know all your important information. Create a fact sheet that includes:

  • Annual financials, including revenues (contributed and earned) and expenditures
  • How your organization is funded, especially how much you rely on different fundraising buckets (e.g., government, grants, business sponsors, events, individuals, board).
  • Your number of donors, broken down by category.
  • Your new donor acquisition rate.
  • Your donor retention rate.
  • The revenue-generating programs you have in place, and the extent to which these are successful.
  • The revenue-generating programs and campaigns you’re planning in the year(s) ahead.
  • The impact your nonprofit is having on your beneficiaries.
  • How you communicate that impact.
  • The committees in place to help you meet your goals.
  • Your staff organization chart.
  • Your board roster with phone numbers and emails so they can get in touch with their peers.

5. Strategic plan

Wherever you’re headed, you’re going to need your board members help. What are your goals? What will it take to achieve them? What is the role of staff vs. board? Specifically how are board members expected to help? What role, in particular, would you like them to play?

Too often board members feel they just sit around and rubber stamp things. This doesn’t feel like success to them.

PRO TIP:  Develop a board member interest intake form. Talk with them about their strengths and interests and assign them tasks that align with those. This will give them purpose and make their service meaningful.

You never want a board member thinking “what am I doing here?”

A Few Specific Action Tips

There are a few things you can do to make sure your board members stay primed for success when it comes to growing your nonprofit’s impact.

1. Invite all new board members to a formal orientation.

Consider the best folks for members to meet with to get a broad overview and lay of the land.  It’s fine to do this one-to-one or as a small group, depending on how many members you are onboarding. Make sure the session lasts no longer than 60 – 90 minutes so it is manageable, interesting and fun. This shouldn’t feel like an endurance test. Depending on your situation, the geographic location of the board members and what’s going on in the world, this can happen in person or virtually. Folks you may want the board members to meet with include:

  • The E.D.
  • The Associate E.D. or COO
  • The Finance Director
  • The Development Director
  • Other Executive Staff or Program Directors

Each staff person should explain their role, talk about how board members can be helpful, and ask if there are any questions. An on-site meeting can include a tour if appropriate. Prepare a Board Orientation Handbook. You can find a range of templates and suggestions here and here.

2. Ask for feedback. 

After the board orientation, ask for feedback. In fact, do this regularly with all your board members.  This shows you value their input, and gets everything started out as an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-time monologue. If they still have questions, you want to know! After all, the better informed board members are, the better they’ll be able to accomplish their, and your, goals.

3. Assign a buddy.

Ask a veteran board member to mentor a new board member. This will give the newbie a contact and potential friend right off the bat, making them feel more welcomed into your community. It will also potentially free up the E.D. and/or Board President from having to respond to questions regarding expectations and culture. And it just makes the board experience more fun for everyone.

4. Hold feet to the fire. 

What gets measured gets done. If you don’t hold board members accountable… if you don’t recognize them for their hard work and successes… you aren’t likely to motivate them to truly engage.

When new board members see current ones failing to show up at meetings or events, or failing to follow through on assignments, they soon begin to think they don’t need to show up either. That’s why it’s important to put systems in place to offer feedback and track performance. Some organizations include spreadsheets in board meeting packets; others post them to an online system for board members only (e.g. Googledocs; Slack, etc.)

  • It can be as simple as a spreadsheet with each member’s name and attendance record.
  • You can include a similar calendar spreadsheet that tracks attendance at events, committee meetings, trainings, conferences and volunteer opportunities.
  • You can include a project-specific spreadsheet with each member’s contributions to particular campaigns (e.g., thank you calls made; personal notes written; visits set up; presentations made; new donors invited; P2P campaigns initiated, and so forth).

Kick accountability up by having board members complete an annual board assignment worksheet where they indicate areas in which they’ll be willing to participate in the coming year. As human beings, we’re wired to follow through on commitments. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) did a study on accountability and found the probability of completing a goal if:

  • You have an idea or a goal:  10%
  • You consciously decide you will do it:  25%
  • You decide when you will do it:  40%
  • You plan how you will do it:  50%
  • You commit to someone you will do it:  65%
  • You have a specific accountability appointment with a person you’ve committed to:  95%

Have a staff person follow up individually with each board member to make specific assignments. Make sure that staff person checks in regularly until the assignment is completed. Board members often need hand-holding and cheerleading – so expect this and build it into your job description and work plan.

5. Invite current board members to attend your orientations

You may have members who never attended an orientation. There may be others who would love a little “refresher.” Let them know they are more than welcome and, in fact, you’d love to have them there to greet the new members.  This gives them an “ambassador” assignment and makes the feel good about their role. It simultaneously brings members of your community closer, building motivation and passion to fulfill their important role.

Want to Get Staff and Board on the Same Page?

Attitude of Gratitude Guide to Donor Retention

Get action tips, templates and much more!

Consider working through the exercises in the 7 Clairification Keys to Unlock Your Nonprofit’s Fundraising Potential together. It will put the focus on issues, not personalities.  And I guarantee you’ll learn a lot!

If you’re not satisfied for any reason, all Clairification products come with a no-questions-asked, 30-day, 100% refund guarantee.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash


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