Onboarding Leadership Volunteers for Success

by Deb Dale

I am a nonprofit fundraising consultant, and I am also a board member. If you are, too, then you, like me, probably want to succeed and be a “good board member.” But what exactly does that mean?

In our professional practice, we often hear leadership bemoan, “Our board isn’t doing anything.” To which we respond, “Well, what have you asked them to do?” The response is often the glazed look of those who are jaded from carrying the bulk of the burden. What to do? Create parameters in which your leadership volunteers can succeed!

In Your Recruiting

Be very specific and selective about who you invite onto your board. Recruiting for diversity in skill sets optimizes the effectiveness of your board. Do you have an attorney, an accountant, a marketing professional and a professional fundraiser? Each position is key. Diversity in age, social networks and geographic representation can be critical to expanding the reach of your mission. When you bring on a new board member, and he or she is trained to be a good advocate, you are also gaining access to this person’s 500+ friends and family.

Before They Join

Be very transparent about the state of your organization, where you are in the nonprofit lifecycle, and exactly what you need and expect from board members. Have a checklist of specific governance expectations and specific, executable fundraising tasks, where you need the board’s leadership and support. (“Go fundraise!” is not a helpful directive.)

When They Join

How are you “onboarding” new board members? Is there a mini-retreat prior to their first meeting to give them organizational history, a deep-dive into the financials, a 101 on the organization’s programs, etc.? Do they have a mentor they can call upon to help them understand things in more detail? It’s important to help people acclimate quickly and efficiently.

While They Are Serving

Financials. Yes, I said it. We are legally liable when we serve on nonprofit boards, and most transgressions are not due to malfeasance, but inattention. And most often, it’s the financials. Ensuring your board members aren’t just waiting for the Treasurer and CFO to nod emphatically at the end of their report, but are understanding the report details, is important. Is your board encouraged to ask questions, seek clarification and participate fully in meetings?

We’ve worked with groups who require new board members to serve on the Finance Committee — and only the Finance Committee — for their first year. Others spend five or 10 minutes of each board meeting doing a thorough explanation of one aspect of the organization’s finances or financial practices. Or have a one-hour, in-depth meeting at the auditor’s office prior to the beginning of each fiscal year, mandatory for new members and a great refresh for returners. All are effective.

Also, volunteering should be win-win. Are you providing opportunities for your board to network and get to know each other outside of the boardroom? Are you thanking them often and publicly for their service?

Engaged, effective board service is a critical component to organizational success. Setting up clear parameters will eliminate gray areas, which can leave both board and staff feeling frustrated. Openness, transparency and respect make everyone feel like they can succeed.

Deb Dale, CFRE, is a founding partner of Smith & Dale Philanthropic Counsel, a consulting firm providing services to increase revenue for nonprofits, and promote impactful giving for foundations and businesses. Dale has provided board facilitation, strategic planning, educational trainings and performance audits for countless organizations. Through major gifts, capital campaigns and other fundraising, she has helped nonprofits raise more than $35million in funds.

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