Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
A recent study found that only half of nonprofit boards surveyed received some type of formal orientation. To prepare board members for their leadership roles, associations need to dedicate time and resources to onboarding.
At too many associations, “board orientation” rarely rises above emailed directions to the meeting room.
That’s the troubling finding of a recent report, Association Nonprofit Boards: Maximizing Effective Service, published last fall by the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles and George Mason University’s law school. According to the study, only half of the more than 500 nonprofit board members surveyed said they received a formal orientation, and less than half (46 percent) said their onboarding experience properly prepared them to be an effective board member.
“A lot of people haven’t really focused on orientation beyond just, ‘Hey, let’s get together so we can all meet each other,’” says Dr. David K. Rehr, a George Mason University professor and former association executive who coauthored the report. That lack of initial conversation, he says, can leave volunteer leaders ill-prepared to discuss strategic issues because they’re ill-informed about the association’s structure and challenges. And casual introductions can mean they treat those issues casually.
What does effective orientation look like? Julian Ha, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles and a coauthor of the report, says there are a few must-dos: That first meeting needs to cover the association’s mission, strategic plan, financials, and performance measurements of the CEO and the senior team. “It’s got to be in the back of [the board members’] minds, ‘Oh, this is what she does, and this is how she’s measured,” Ha says.
Ha says a no-nonsense conversation about board duties also helps. Leaders can’t assume board members know the nuts and bolts of board service, and some straight talk can help erase any sense that board work is a sinecure. “Often it’s a reputation thing, to get on the board,” Ha says, “but it’s important to say that there’s work to do.”
Lastly, Ha recommends kickstarting a conversation about the future of the organization quickly. According to the study, 31 percent of respondents said their board does not focus on where the organization will be in five years.
“There needs to be some discussion on competition and the future, right from the beginning,” he says. “The economics of the association world in the 1970s and ’80s were very different than they are today.”
The need to get it right—and right away—is also more pronounced now, according to the study: 64 percent of respondents say demands on board members have increased in the past five years. Which underscores the need for formal onboarding, says Ha: “It needs to be formal, because otherwise, it gives the impression that it’s kind of an optional thing for people to pay attention to.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Onboard and Upward."]