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The Value of Board Orientation

It’s summertime, and lots of nonprofit boards of directors have had their annual meeting. Some will meet in the fall. Annual meeting time is customarily when boards elect officers and vote in new members. Boards that have term limits specified in the bylaws make it a practice to rotate members who have served their time, off the board and bring the newly elected members in.

Effective boards take some time to orient the new folks in how business is done.

I recommend that the executive director work out an orientation schedule with members of the executive committee and senior staff. Scheduling orientation to occur when it’s least inconvenient for all (over breakfast, lunch, or dinner) allowing enough time for big stuff to be covered, and for questions to get answered.

Here’s a suggested Orientation Agenda for your consideration:

1. Introductions. Each person present introduces self and why s/he works for or volunteers for the nonprofit.

2. What the bylaws say: A quick overview of key areas describing board responsibilities. These govern board action.

3. Staff flow chart and a board committee chart laying out the flow of work.

4. Highlight most recent budget and work plan for the current year with an outline of how decisions are made and who (staff or board) makes which kinds of decisions.

5. Big issues before the nonprofit at the moment. Pointing out two or three challenges that have the organization’s attention, and how they are being dealt with.

6. Mission and strategic direction: Where the nonprofit is headed and how it hopes to get there.

This can be successfully accomplished in a two-to-three hour timeframe. The idea is to get the organization’s decision-makers on the same page so all know what’s up, how this group works, and what’s expected.

Each new member should know what the options are for committee assignments, and let the board chair know his/her preferences. Within two weeks of this meeting, the chair should confer with the executive director and determine where the new members can best fit on which committees.

Taking the time each year, within six weeks (or so) of the annual meeting, to conduct a well-planned orientation will help new members see where things are heading, and how they can best fit in.

There are many guides to help lay out a useful orientation. Check BoardSource, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC dedicated to effective nonprofit governance. You will find many useful tools available for purchase that you can put into practice.

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