When someone joins your board, they likely receive basic information like board dates, committee minutes, insurance details, bylaws and recent public filings. But your organization also needs the onboarding process to help new members build relationships with existing board members, and confidently advocate for your mission. To achieve these results, onboarding should encompass best practices for optimizing board engagement.
Start with activities like a tour of your organization that encourages new board members to interact with staff and other board members. The orientation should provide a solid foundation of knowledge for the new board member, while also creating some excitement.
Board members usually enjoy activities like a day at the facility or a walk around the office. The Philadelphia Zoo took this idea a step further. When Vik Dewan became president and executive director of the zoo, he noted that the organization’s space defined its mission. To help new members experience that space, and share what visitors see and feel, they needed to get out of the boardroom. So, the zoo required all board members to be present on the premises and interact with staff and guests on a weekend day twice a year.
In preparation for these weekend visits, Dewan challenged each board member to shadow a staff member and observe how they performed their role and contributed to the visitor experience. For example, a finance chair may be paired with a veterinarian or a food service manager at one of the many zoo concessions. Through this shadowing opportunity, board members had a personal and real experience of the actual operations of the zoo.
Board members are giving their time and talent to volunteer, and should enjoy the experience. How can you get them excited? Dewan avoided giving them committee assignments that automatically corresponded with their day job. Instead, he focused on their passion for the mission.
When issues arise, convene task forces that bring together board members who have relevant skill sets, but that allow the day-to-day committees to bring unique perspectives from those day jobs to committee assignments. Begin committee meetings with a free flow of information — sharing perspectives and ideas.
At the zoo, the board calendar was published, including committee meetings. Meetings were open to all board members, even those not on the convening committee. Members were encouraged to attend any committee meeting they chose. If the finance committee reviewed the budget, including funding for a new facility, any board member could attend the discussion. They heard firsthand what was included and learned how that exhibit might inform future finance committee discussions and enhance the mission and visitor experience.
People also join boards because they want to form relationships, which can contribute to the trust needed for difficult discussions later. One way to support that goal is to pair a new board member with a mentor, based on shared interests and personality matching. In addition, social events or time for socializing before or after meetings can foster stronger connections among board members and staff, and generate excitement about an organizational accomplishment.
Finally, your board orientation should not be a one-time activity. Orientation activities should be ongoing to familiarize members with the workings of the board, its various committee responsibilities and its broader organizational strategic goals. While you can choose from many options to orient new board members, try to incorporate activities and events that will promote interaction and excitement outside of the boardroom.
Elizabeth Ireland is an experienced member of our not-for-profit practice who has been with Grant Thornton for 11 years. Elizabeth chose Grant Thornton upon her return to public accounting because it was the only firm that could promise her a concentration in the higher education and not-for-profit sectors.
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