How to get the most out of your non profit board of directors.

Now that the new year has begun, the makeup of many non profit board of directors may look quite a bit different from last year. Yours is probably no exception. Some experienced and high value board members will have rotated off due to term limits, while your eager, new directors will be attending their first board meeting. For some, it may even be their first ever nonprofit board meeting.

In order to create an effective board you may want to have the new board members get involved in a series of simple team-building exercises over the first few months. This should help everyone get to know each other and make them more comfortable working together. But it’s important to keep in mind, there are two huge gaps between your returning board members and the freshly minted ones.

These gaps are the Historical Gap and the Knowledge Gap and every non profit board of directors experiences them when new directors begin their terms and others retire from service.These gaps will limit your board’s potential until they can be addressed and removed.

The Historical Gap represents the lack of historical perspective new directors have about why things are done certain ways. These are important lessons (some of which may have been expensive or painful to learn) because they provide reference points and guidelines to others about why some things are done certain ways.

The Knowledge Gap refers to a new director’s lack of understanding of existing procedures, protocols, current issues facing the agency, expectations, etc.

It is important to get your new board members off to a good start. Since you spent all that the time to carefully identify, recruit and then land your new directors, it stands to reason that you should see that they begin their service on the right foot as soon as possible.

When new directors are unclear about their specific roles, responsibilities, expectations, the status of important ongoing issues they just sit in board meetings and listen — many for 4-6 months before saying much.

Even worse, they can be silenced by a long time board member who used his or her seniority on the board to subtly intimidate new members to just go with-the-flow. This is a shame and it will ultimately be those you serve who will suffer if the entire board is not healthy and operating at a high level.

So what do you do to get new board directors engaged?

One of best ways to address these gaps head-on is by employing a New Director Training and Orientation Program for your new board members. New board members can be the cornerstone of a non profit board of directors. A New Director Training and Orientation Program can help clarify responsibilities and get your new board members contributing value quickly. This can also be used periodically as a refresher program for the rest of the board.

This program should consist of a meeting (or series of meetings) covering all the important subjects new directors need to know to begin adding value ASAP. You want them feeling welcome and comfortable right away, and getting involved in board discussions soon, so they feel a part of the organization and get engaged quickly.

If you don’t engage them fast, you could lose them. High value directors will not hang around wasting their time. They have many other board options waiting in the wings. You will lose them in short order if they don’t feel like they are being led and being useful.

You can download a list of critical items you may want to include in your Orientation Program online. Keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all list for every nonprofit, so you may want to add, delete or edit and tailor this list to fit the specific needs of your agency.

Since successful board orientation is such an important step in board development, I suggest you not make this orientation a part of a regular board meeting. Instead, call a special meeting just for the new members so you have ample time to cover all the topics in detail and have time for questions.

Also, these orientation sessions should be held as soon as possible for new members, and they should be led by a combination of the Board Chair, the Board Development or Governance Committee Chair, and the agency’s Executive Director.

If you create a Board Orientation program, and work to overcome the Historical Gap and Knowledge Gap, you will have a much smoother transition from your former board to your new one with nothing lost in the transition. Properly prepare your new non profit board directors and you will see them contribute to the agency more quickly, add more value, and be more engaged in their roles, and the organization.

To evaluate your current board, and find out if your organization has what it takes to make a bigger impact, take the Break Through Quiz  for a quick assessment of your board’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.