Rethinking Board Orientations

Rethinking Board Orientations

Most non-profit organizations tend to think about their new board members as “plug-and-play” interchangeable pieces. “Come on in for an hour and a half orientation meeting next Saturday and you’ll be good to go.” Often it doesn’t work out that way.

I suggest thinking about board orientation as lasting a year and a half instead of an hour and a half.

Bill Walsh was the coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners during their heyday in the 1980s. One of Walsh’s innovations was in scripting the first fifteen-or-so offensive plays to understand better how the opposing defense would react and perform in specific situations.

I suggest that we think along these same lines for new board members. Let’s say the objective is to have the best board member possible after two years of board service. What experiences, training, discussion – what first 15 plays – would you want that person to have in in that time so that both of you can see how s/he reacts and performs in specific situations?

Here’s my starter list. If you have further ideas, I’d love to hear them.





  • Board members should learn and grow comfortable with how money flows into and out of the organization. The best place to learn that is on the finance committee. New board members should serve on the Finance Committee for the entirety of their first year on the board.
  • On the Finance Committee, they should be assigned a mentor who sits beside them and helps them understand the various accounts, policies, and systems that are in play during the year. This mentorship is particularly important during their first budget and audit cycles.
  • First-year board members should also sit in on at least one meeting of every one of the other committees. After completing this “circuit”, they should meet privately with the Chair and make their interests known related to which committee or committees hold the most interest for them.
  • First-year board members should screen the entire donor list, placing a star beside donors they know have significant capacity (with any appropriate notes), and circling those they know personally. They should meet personally with at least one of these donors in the company of another board director. This might be at an organizational event. It might be at a private lunch or coffee.
  • First-year board members should develop and practice their version of an “elevator speech” for the organization. The essential idea is that you are quickly and efficiently telling someone, a favorite aunt perhaps, why you are serving on the board. It’s called an elevator speech, because theoretically you should be able to deliver it start to finish in the time you spend with someone in an elevator. The speech should briefly describe what the organization does, why doing that is important, and the nature your personal connection to it. I encourage all board members to regularly deliver their elevator speech to the entire board, as a form of ritualized practice. Practicing is just good “practice” anyway, but hearing what others say can help you refine and hone your own message. Delivering such a speech to the board should be required of every new board member within their first year of service.
  • First-year board members should schedule at least one day with a program staff person (or volunteer) to witness firsthand the mission being delivered. This will take many different forms for different organizations. For example, for land trusts, this might mean going out with a land steward to monitor a conservation easement. Or for a food pantry, it might mean delivering food to those in need.
  • Finally, first-year board members should become “standard bearers” for one of the organizational standards described in last week’s post. They will benefit from knowing the organization that much more intimately, and the organization will benefit from having a fresh set of eyes looking critically at the way it does its business every couple of years or so.


Photo by Walt Kaesler

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