by Elyse Tadich Rudolph
According to the 2014 Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Survey, nonprofits have seen an 80 percent increase in demand for their services. Yet financially and strategically, these organizations are on unstable ground. On the fiscal side, more than one-quarter of nonprofits ended FY2013 with a deficit. An additional 55 percent of nonprofits have less than 3 months of operating reserves. Strategically, more than half of nonprofits have been unable to meet the demand for their services. As the NFF President and CEO Antony Bugg-Levine concluded, “The data show that this system is under increasing pressure, and it will crack.”
Effective board members have the expertise and resources to help organizations confront and solve these issues. Nonprofits cannot afford to waste these relationships! To capitalize on these crucial volunteers, nonprofits must effectively orient its board leaders so they can make an impact from day one. Optimal board member orientation should include the following key tasks:
Key One: Board service expectations established up front
Clearly define the time commitment, required activities, and fundraising and giving expectations. You should also establish your organization’s decision-making and leadership needs. Have this discussion early to help you and your prospective board member determine if the partnership is a good one for both of you.
A contract is an easy way to make your expectations clear. This template from CompassPoint, a nonprofit consultancy, can help you begin to develop your own board contract. Watch the webinar for some other great examples.
Key Two: Educational resources for new board members
New members need to know about the organizational mission, impact, needs, and goals, as well as the organization’s legal and financial guidelines. This information will help them be better decision-makers and advocates for your nonprofit.
An orientation manual serves as an easy resource for new members. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisory group, suggests the following orientation manual framework:
- Know the People: leadership, organizational chart, contact information for key staff and board members
- Know the Responsibilities: board member responsibilities, committee structure and expectations
- Know the Legal/Financial Framework: bylaws, budget, 990 form, conflict of interest details
- Know the Organization: mission statement, organization history, talking points, key statistics, immediate and long-term goals
This sample table of contents from Greenlights for Nonprofit Success provides a more detailed list of materials you can include in your board orientation manual.
Key Three: Consideration for your board member’s talents and interests
It’s easy for an organization to fixate on what they want to get from board members, but for members to be truly engaged and excited, also think about their personal wants and needs. Ask them why they want to join your board and what they hope to get out of the experience. Then, whenever possible, give them committee assignments or special projects that connect their interests and abilities to your organizational needs.
Watch the webinar for a more specific list of questions you can ask, and a look at some of your board members’ motives.
Key Four: Relationship building opportunities
Board members will make big decisions on behalf of your organization. They need to feel comfortable bringing up new ideas, debating issues, and confronting challenges as a group and with your organization’s staff.
Plan occasional events outside of your board meetings – like new member dinners, informal lunches, or conference calls – so that members connect with each other and with your staff. Watch the webinar for other relationship development ideas, and for a case study in board relationship building that paid big dividends for a nonprofit organization.
Think of orientation as the tool that sets the tone for your board members’ service. With a good orientation, you can make your expectations clear, educate your board members, and increase their engagement and investment in your mission. All of this results in creating enthusiastic ambassadors dedicated to supporting, promoting, and growing your organization.
My webinar provides more information, as well as five action steps your organization can take now to improve your board orientation process. Please check it out!
- Bridgespan Group: suggested structure and tools for successful board member orientation
- BoardSource: Board Basics 101, a free manual on welcoming new board members
- Sample Board Orientation Checklist
Elyse Tadich Rudolph is currently a program coordinator for the College at Georgetown University, where she works closely with the College’s Baker Board of Trustees. She has also worked with several boards at the Smithsonian Institution, where she spent four years as an advancement and programming professional. Elyse received her undergraduate degree in English from the College of William and Mary, and is now pursuing her master’s degree in Corporate Communications and Public Relations at Georgetown University.