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A Thorough Orientation = A High-Performing Nonprofit Board

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The future success of any nonprofit board’s activity depends on a thorough new member orientation. But what constitutes a top-notch board orientation?

I have heard and offered many suggestions. Since that time, I have participated in more than one board orientations that I would describe as steller. You might be surprised to hear they were both quite different in their approaches. But one similarity was a focus on the S.M.I.T.

What’s a S.M.I.T., you ask?

S.M.I.T. = “Single Most Important Thing”

My good friend Tom Ahern, Bloomerang’s Donor Communications Coach, in his tips for success, passionately refers to any successful organization’s S.M.I.T. permeating any and everything they do and say. The S.M.I.T. is the core reason for doing something. In donor communications, it’s the “Single Most Important Thing I have to tell you today.” For a board orientation, it’s the “Single Most Important Thing (Reason) we exist.”

Both of my recent board orientations utilized their S.M.I.T. throughout. Can you think of any better way to implant the most important concept or theme to you board members?

If the S.M.I.T. is firmly implanted with your board members, as well as the key members of your team conducting the orientation, the spirit will grow even stronger!

Board Orientation #1 – The Strength Of Best Practices

The first example was from a prestigious education and research organization within the nonprofit world. During my travel to their board orientation, I wondered how they would weave their S.M.I.T. into the morning session.

It did not take long to find out. Within the first hour of the three-hour session (which flew by) it was obvious the world-class research and the pride it invokes was part of the presentations. More importantly, the Socratic method of discussion that ensued helped to bring their principles and spirit to life for all of us new to the board.

Lessons learned from orientation #1:

  • Highlight all of your strengths during the orientation
  • Make it interactive – open & thought-provoking discussion
  • Instill a strong sense of pride in every board member
  • If any of the board travels from afar, hold it prior to a board meeting
  • Create a complete board orientation packet to be taken home as a handy reference manual
  • Review and discuss your board expectations document
  • Allow a time for the board members to better know each other
  • Assign a current board member to each new board member for off-line questions and to serve as a mentor

As new board members, we emerged informed, proud and truly infused with single most important thing about the organization. This translated into more involved board members who were active in board meetings, committee meetings and in other volunteer efforts such as fundraising.

Board Orientation #2 – The Strength Of In-Depth Interactions

The second example we will review occurred just a week or so ago. This institution has a rich tradition involving it’s constituency in an interactive living history museum setting. Therefore, its S.M.I.T. revolved around those in-depth interactions with the staff, the exhibits and perhaps most importantly, among family members exploring together!

So, after brief introductions and some historical background on the organization’s structure we were all immediately immersed into the exhibits and the behind-the-scenes archives. This experience was greatly enhanced by the interaction with the top members of the staff responsible for each area.

The conversations were highly interactive and lead to a much deeper emotional understanding and attachment to the organization. Honestly, all of us would have enjoyed spending the entire day in this immersion.

How often can you say that about any orientation you have been part of?

Lessons learned from orientation #2:

  • Do not be afraid to let your board experience what your nonprofit is truly about
  • Add special touches that cannot be found in a regular visit
  • Involve senior members of your team so interaction can happen naturally
  • Don’t read what is in the board packet to them, they can peruse it on their own later
  • Invite previous or current board members to add to the interactions
  • Start and finish on the times stated, these are busy people
    • Have fun doing it!

Two Paths to Success

There is no one defined way to create your special version of a board orientation. Note the key watchword is “SPECIAL.”

As long as you weave in your organization’s S.M.I.T. you will be well on your way to creating a memorable experience while setting the stage for deeper and more meaningful board involvement!

If you have tried other ideas that have worked please let us know below in the comments. May your next orientation be a great one!

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