5 Ways You Can Help a New Board Member Succeed
August 21, 2015

Whether you are the Board Chair, the Executive Director or the Development Director, you want to give your new board members everything they need to be successful. If they’ve never served on a board before, they will depend on your guidance. Seize this window of opportunity to help them be good board members (and you will definitely want to have a shared understanding of what that means).

SONY DSCI’ve been on both sides of this process: as the new board member attending an orientation, and as the Development Director organizing and participating in the orientation. I’ve seen it done really well, and more often, really poorly. What I’ve learned in all situations is that new board members greatly appreciate and rely on your help. They will follow your lead, and will be receptive to your guidance and suggestions (particularly at the beginning of their term of service). Here are five (5) things you can do to help them succeed:

I. Explore their Needs, Goals, and Board Service Motivation.

If your new board member is an existing major donor (and many are), you should already be well acquainted. If that’s not the case, the nominations process should have given you a solid understanding of the skill sets and social networks your new board member brings. You will explore all of that in the future. But for now, take some time to get to know your new board member. Set up a breakfast or lunch meeting (avoid the office environment). Thank them for their service commitment (by the way, you should open every meeting with a board member by thanking them). Answer all of their questions. Ask them questions. Where are they from originally? What do they like to do in their off-time? Why have they decided to serve on a board, and more specifically, your board? What is it about your organization that made board service compelling? Do they have a personal connection to the mission? Are they a former client, donor, or beneficiary of the work of the organization? Have they served on other boards, and if so, what was gratifying about that experience? What was difficult? What do they hope to gain from this new board experience? Is there a specific way that they would like to contribute to the organization’s mission? In addition to lending their expertise, are there areas that they would like to learn more about? Finally, encourage them to reach out if they have questions or if there is anything you can do to help them understand the work better. In this initial conversation, your goal is to find ways where you can deliver a win/win situation. Remember, nonprofit board members are not compensated for their time. They are doing this for another reason. It is a reason that is personal and unique to them. Find out what that reason is, and help them to achieve their own personal service goals as well as the goals of your organization.

II. Articulate the Board’s Role and Responsibilities.

New board members (and particularly those who are serving on a board for the first time) want nothing more than to be successful, informed and helpful in their new role. It naturally follows that they will need to know specifically what their role. responsibilities are, and the expectations of them. There are many solid “Board Training Programs” that convey all of this practical governance information to prospective board members and are a helpful resource in orienting them to their duties. If you prefer to do this in-house, it all starts with the Board Member Role description, a document that can also be used during the recruitment process because it clarifies the Board Role to prospective board members. If you don’t have this document at your disposal, develop one in collaboration with the Governance Committee and/or Board Chair. There are many templates online which can be adapted to your needs. Personally, I am a big believer in a “Keep It Simple” strategy when it comes to sharing information with the board, and prefer a one-page role document supplemented with other materials. Remember, this document is essential to their success because board members won’t know how to be good board members without being informed of their role and responsibilities. Help them understand what is being asked of them. Other onboarding elements should include an overview of the Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obedience. Make sure your new (and current) board members understand these concepts. You should also provide supplemental information regarding bylaws, board service policies, conflict of interest policy, Board meeting protocol, attendance expectations, fundraising expectations (see #4 for an elaboration on this), standing committee structure and purpose, nomination and election process, and service terms and limits. If applicable, be sure to articulate consequences of not complying with policies (for example, missing three board meetings results in termination).

III. Provide an Organizational Overview.

Board members are governing leaders and ambassadors of the organization’s work. It is essential they receive a comprehensive introduction to the agency’s history, mission and financials. In the future, your board members will be updated about the work at board meetings. This formal orientation provides a basis of understanding. Kick off the meeting with a tour of the office/facility/headquarters, to get better acquainted with the work, and the people on staff that make everything happen. New board members should receive the latest strategic plan, as well as an update on where the agency is in terms of achieving the plan’s objectives. They should understand how the work gets accomplished as well as some context. Major areas of orientation include Development, Finance, and Programmatic areas. For Development, provide an overview of the revenue portfolio, the different revenue streams, the agency’s development goals for the current fiscal year, and how the board can help reach those goals. For Finance, provide a brief overview of the current agency’s operating expense budget, the budgeting process, fiscal controls, and how the board approves the proposed budget each year. For programmatic areas, discuss recent achievements and future goals. It may be helpful to provide them with personal client stories to learn how clients benefit from the work of the agency. Your goal is to get them to be fluent, comfortable and confident ambassadors of the agency. To do this effectively and efficiently means providing introductory information in a brief, accurate, and compelling way.

IV. Clarify Fundraising Expectations for Board Members.

While this will be briefly addressed in board member responsibilities (#2 above), you should have a separate, private meeting with each new board member to review fundraising expectations, and offer support. In a perfect world, it would also be attended by the Chair of the Development Committee. During the meeting you will discuss the very delicate issue of fundraising, and come to an agreement of how their expected give and get Commitment (the “give/get”) can be achieved. I suggest using a simple, one-page commitment form that lists the entire variety of giving options (events, annual fund, grants, in-kind, etc.) and review them during the meeting. Your goal is to develop a mutually agreed upon personal fundraising plan for the board member to reach their give/get expectation. Record the specific commitment fundraising plan agreed to on the form (e.g., Member will buy a $10,000 gala table, donate $5,000 to the annual campaign, and sell another $10,000 table to achieve $25,000 give/get). Next, ask how you can support them, and record your specific commitment to meeting their needs on the document as well (e.g., Development will support Member’s goals by providing ongoing guidance, producing formatted solicitation letter templates, gala solicitation materials, and e-mail reminders when it is time to renew Member’s annual fund gift). When you reach consensus, you will both sign the document as a pledge to work together toward this goal. In addition to new board members, you should have this meeting annually with all currently serving board members. Have the signed commitment document for the previous year to review and discuss fundraising results. If they’ve met their give/get and fundraising goals, laud them for their stellar performance, and thank them for their efforts! If they haven’t, be positive, and ask if there’s a way you can better support their efforts in the coming year.

These meetings often reveal some board members who are resistant or uncomfortable with asking for donations, and frankly, there are board members who will never be effective face-to-face solicitors. Support the member who wants to learn how to solicit successfully by providing guidance and coaching. Offer to bring them along on a donor call (donors, and particularly foundation donors, are very impressed with that). It will be fun, they will learn a bit, and if the gift comes in, it gets recorded toward their give/get! Some board members are naturally less social and do not want to join donor calls, or attend special events. You will need to explore fundraising alternatives that they are comfortable with, and work with them on their plan. On the other end of the spectrum, some board members are extremely social and want their board service to be focused exclusively on special events, lunches and networking. They need a different kind of attention and guidance. It’s very important to have this kind of diversity at your boardroom table. You must meet each board member where they are, and follow their lead in how they are most comfortable with fundraising. It all has value.

give getPLEASE NOTE: The one area you want to be absolutely sure new board members understand is the importance of meeting the board give/get expectation, which often requires further elaboration. The benefits of achieving the board’s give/get expectation go far beyond the aggregate dollars received. What’s more important is that it is evidence that board members unanimously support the agency. It is important to be able to claim 100% board engagement, as it is a very impressive metric to share with foundations. In fact, for some foundations, it is so important that any less than 100% board engagement will exclude you from funding consideration. And for good reason: having board members who do not support the agency financially raises a red flag to potential supporters. Of course, there are exceptions for those board members who can’t meet a specific level “give” level, and rely more on the “get” portion; others may be between jobs or have other extenuating circumstances. What is important is that each member contributes at a level that is meaningful and significant for them.

V. Express Your Gratitude for Their Board Service.

Previously mentioned, but important enough to repeat: You must begin every meeting and interaction with a board member by thanking them for their service. Publicly acknowledge their successes, efforts and accomplishments. It may feel strange or overly effusive, but it’s not. If they ask for or need your feedback, be honest, but always be sure to deliver feedback positively, diplomatically and above all compassionately. Be sure they know you want them to be successful and can help support them. This is very important. When board members feel unappreciated, unneeded, or not supported, they leave. It’s really that simple. Imagine how discouraging it would be to give your time, money, energy and passion to something, and then feel unappreciated? So, thank them for their service at every opportunity.

In conclusion, if you are successful in providing new board members with the above, they will possess everything they need to succeed, and it will set the tone for their term of service. You have an opportunity to start new board members off on the right foot. These initial onboarding activities are critical to future success.

So, don’t blow it.     <wink>  


And if you somehow do, don’t worry: a future blog will address what happens in the unfortunate event board roles and expectations aren’t sufficiently articulated to new board members (SPOILER ALERT: Confusion and chaos).

Call us to discuss your needs.

Because even the best organization sometimes need a little outside help.


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Finlay Consulting Services is a New York City-based fundraising and philanthropy practice that specializes in Strategic Planning, Grantmaking Impact Assessment, Revenue Diversification, Board Engagement and Governance, Executive Coaching, Corporate & Foundation Relations, Major Donor Stewardship, Planned Giving, Capacity Building Forums, Retreats, and Interim Leadership.


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