The C-MBS blog is dedicated to better understanding the critical Practices, Actions, Styles, Attitudes, Manners, Behaviors, and Attributes—what regular readers of the blog now know as the PASAMBAs—consistently reflected by the Change-Making Board. For the post this time, we look at a topic that is front-and-center for those public and nonprofit boards which seat new members at the start of a calendar year: New Trustee Orientation.
It’s not uncommon to think of orientation for on-boarding trustees as including things like meeting staff, touring facilities, and reviewing the policy manual or budget. Of course, there’s a strong social component involved as new members join the board. It’s typical to have the board host a social event or meet-and-greet for new trustees with donors and other external leaders. A veteran board member may be assigned to mentor each new trustee through the first few meetings—these “board buddies” can also answer routine questions that invariably arise over the course of a new director’s first year of service.
However, those functions—while valuable—pale in comparison to the importance of the cultural aspect of new trustee orientation. An effective orientation experience provides an initial opportunity (remembering that the recruitment phase is really where orientation begins) for new trustees to develop their understanding of board operations and form an awareness of how the board functions in relation to the organization. Orientation is when expectations are set (or altered in some cases) for new trustees around the mission and purposes of the institution or agency, how the board contributes to those, and the roles and responsibilities of individual members.
It’s worth mentioning, too, there is some irony in the fact that the orientation process can actually be more challenging with trustees who have served on other boards previously. There is an idiosyncratic element to the best orientation programs: New board members need orientation for your organization and to your board, which may demand setting aside preconceived notions about trusteeship developed during their earlier experiences.
Other factors combine to make orientation a more meaningful experience for incoming trustees. A trustee handbook or board manual (not the policy manual, but a document specifically to guide trustees) becomes the “textbook” for orientation and centralizes foundational information about the agency and its history, mission, and basic operations; the board’s structure, functioning, and bylaws; contact information for key individuals, including trustee colleagues and staff leaders; a calendar listing meetings and upcoming events; and other resources that any member might find helpful. One or more face-to-face or virtual orientation sessions are also valuable for getting neophytes to the board updated on current issues involving the organization’s strategic plan, financial position, and impending challenges or problems.
And while it may be a stretch to think of making new trustee orientation exciting or enjoyable, it certainly cannot be allowed to turn into sheer drudgery! It should be scheduled at a time solely for that purpose, and preferably not squeezed in right before (or worse, after) a trustee’s first board meeting. At the start, new board members will feel like they are drinking from a firehose, so think about providing information in bite-size chunks over time, and not overwhelming them with everything at the outset. Keep things convenient, be respectful of their time, and make sure they know where to turn for help when questions arise. In the end, an uplifting approach to orientation—one that highlights the special nature and real-world influence of board service—sets the stage for future development and heightened dedication to the role.
New trustee orientation can be as simple or as sophisticated as a board, working in conjunction with the CEO and senior staff, wishes to make it. Larger, more complex organizations with bigger budgets may do multi-day workshops or even spread events throughout a new member’s first year on the board. Smaller agencies may settle for a written handout and a meeting or two with the executive director and board chair. Past and present trustees themselves will have a great handle on helping to design any orientation program—after all, they are in the best position to share the information that was indispensable when they began their board service.
The Change-Making Board knows a powerful orientation for its new members leads to more engaged trustees and, with that, better governance overall.
Don’t forget that with these and other PASAMBAs leading to consequential and impactful governance, more information can always be found in my book, The Change-Making Board: Consequential Governance for Public & Nonprofit Organizations, available from all major online book retailers or at the “Book” link at the top of the homepage for this blog. Any comments or criticisms, plus ideas or requests for a future post, are always welcome and can be sent to me at email@example.com
See you next time!
R. J. Dunn