Anchors of Board Development

Facilitating a Nonprofit Board Orientation

I recently helped out on a board member orientation workshop  for a nonprofit agency and thought I would share some perspectives on nonprofit board development while the ideas are fairly fresh on my mind.  Over the last few months I have been occasionally posting what has become an informal series on board development (see other posts).

Volunteer-based nonprofit boards are typically comprised of diverse representatives from the community who want  to make a contribution to a cause-based organization.  In smaller to mid-sized organizations it  likely that many new board members have not served on a board previously and often have a vague idea of what being a board member means.   In this context, a board orientation is an important “educational” event. Unfortunately, in zeal to adequately train board members, board  orientation sessions can spiral downwards into a mountain of data and presentation slides.  I have personal experience in such a “missed opportunity ” when I once was captive in a board orientation where the trainer actually powered through over eighty slides in an hour.  My butt was numb and my mind even numb-er and needless to say I learned very little  from the session.  So if massive quantity of slides makes a poor board orientation,   how does one facilitate a board orientation that is not a death march through random slide transitions on an overhead screen?  Here are three fundamental principles:

1.  Spend no more than 12-14 “pages” on Board Governance.  Oregon, like many states produces a Guide to Nonprofit Board Service with the entire document spanning only 16 pages (including covers, front matter and a huge amount of white space).  If the State Attorney General’s Office thinks that the concept of governance can be distilled down 12-14 pages of content, then that becomes a good guide for most nonprofit boards. As a general rule, new board members can get the concepts of “duty” and “control” in ten-fifteen minutes of discussion, without having to explain Federal Circulars governing contract management.  Of course, my assumption is that we are talking about a stable nonprofit with a track record of good management practice, fiscal and program controls, and supporting policies and procedures.  Boards governing an agency in transition are another story.

2. Foster the sense that board members are vital connectors.  A Board orientation needs to emphasize the board members role as a connector. One of the few slides that I have used in board orientation workshops, places the board in between the organization and the community.  The theoretical discussion is simple.  The board has an internal role connecting to the agency mission, vision, staff members and CEO and is responsible for stewarding those connections.  Externally, the board connects to the clients, community and contributors, outwardly representing the agency to these three groups and connecting the interests and needs of the external groups back to the organization. At the recent orientation I attended, one of the practical exercises in making internal connections paired board members in groups of 2 and 3 and had them meet in a roundtable format with staff of the agency who represented the different organizational programs and services.  In an hour’s time, board members connected with each program of the agency and, more importantly, with the agency staff members. Board members reported making vital connections and understanding and praised the short, intense dialogue approach as more meaningful than slide presentations of the same material.

3. Provide connection to each other.  Another facet of board orientation is to outline the concept of networked governance. I have discussed this concept in another post and increasingly I am convinced that successful boards are those that approach governance as a network.  Fundamental to a network is the concept that relationships matter.  Another node in which board members serve as a connector is in their relationships with each other.  Orientation must provide time for board members to connect less formally.

4. Orientation is Process. Finally remember that, as with everything based on performance, the orientation of new board members is not an event but a process.  An intentional time set aside for orientation is a way to start embedding concepts into heads (by detailing program data), engaging hearts (connecting board member with passion and mission), and putting tools in hands (reference materials, by-laws, operating procedures).  That’s orientation. The hard work of building relationships, creating meaningful impact and engaging a high performing board is the ongoing work of board development.  This development requires the ongoing facilitation process that cycles and deepens as boards govern in partnership with the CEO, staff, and community.

Anyone can download some board orientation slides off of the web and present a training workshop.  However, bringing facilitation process into a board orientation shifts the framework from training to learning and this deeper pursuit will strengthen the board. Facilitating a nonprofit board is a journey of empowerment and the first steps along the road to success can be found in the strong grounding of the board orientation.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.




Photo Credit: 422737


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.