Orienting, engaging boards of directors

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial

One of the responsibilities of a board of directors is to manage itself, ensuring that the board has the requisite number of members, that members are adequately trained to do their jobs as board members and that board members follow-through with their responsibilities and are involved in the work of the organization.

Board orientation plays a big part in board member training and engagement. The fundamental goal of board orientation is to get new board members up-to-speed and integrated into the board as quickly as possible so the organization has the advantage of their talents and expertise early in their board terms.

Unfortunately, many boards forego orientation, substituting instead a conversation with the board chair and executive director. While these conversations are valuable, they are not a substitute for a board orientation that involves new and continuing board members and helps build the board into an effective team. Board orientation allows board members to meet one another and talk about the work of the board together, thus encouraging board participation and engagement. Just as businesses systematically introduce new employees to their jobs, the workplace and the environment in which they will work, nonprofit boards should take the time to clarify board member expectations, and introduce board members to the organization, to each other, and to the workings of the board.

Keep it simple

Board orientation does not need to be a large production. It can be as simple as taking some time at the first board meeting with new members to go through the basics of the organization and board responsibilities in a systematic and engaging way.

Outlining the logistics of how the board works, when and how board members receive their board information, the activities and expectations of committee work and how the board conducts its meetings — helps board members know how they can get involved in the board right away. An orientation should also include a brief review of the organization’s strategic plan, budget and current financial statements. This information helps get new and continuing board members on the same page concerning the organization’s vision and objectives for the upcoming year.

A more detailed review of the financial statements at this meeting will help familiarize incoming board members (and remind continuing board members) about the specifics of the organization’s financial structure and business model.

Most importantly, board orientation serves as a team-building exercise for the board of directors. Nonprofit governance is a group activity; it is important that the group works well together. The first step in building a team is getting to know one another. Once again, this does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as providing members the time and opportunity to meet one another, learn names and hear from each member about their interests and motivations for serving on the board.

The board retreat

An annual board retreat — typically a longer board meeting outside of the regular meeting schedule — is another approach to board orientation. This can work particularly well for boards that bring on new board members throughout the year, rather than in a group at a particular meeting, but it can also be useful to other boards as well. Boards often use retreats to review the organization’s annual goals and objectives. Board retreats provide time to introduce new board members to the organization’s strategic plan and involve them in the development of the annual objectives and board work plan. Retreats often include social components, such as a meal together or small group activities, for board members to get to know one another. Once again, this fundamental aspect of team building helps lay the groundwork for better board engagement and involvement throughout the rest of the year.

Investment in the board’s future

Taking board orientation beyond the meeting between the new board member and the board chair and executive director helps build the collective talent of your board. Whether your organization incorporates orientation into a board meeting or makes it a separate activity, it is important to involve both new and continuing board members in some way to allow them to meet one another and talk about the organization together. Board orientation helps ensure that your incoming board members are clear about their responsibilities and that they understand where the organization is going and what role they play in achieving organizational goals. Investing time in board orientation provides benefits of more informed and engaged board members and a stronger board team to guide the organization. It’s a small, but important, investment in building an effective board that should be part of every board’s calendar of activities.



Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Baily Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.