Encore Ideas – Scavenger Hunt for New Board Members

Encore Ideas – Scavenger Hunt for New Board Members

Some ideas are worth re-presenting and re-considering as time and wisdom begin to shape them even further. This week, I’m thinking about board orientations – so-called “onboarding.”

I’ve written about this before (See Rethinking Board Orientations). But in the last few years, I’ve met many more board members than I knew then, and my impressions have helped shape and further refine my thinking.

Here’s the gist: Let’s say that we want board members who are fully prepared to make the strategic, critical, and wise decisions we ask of them at every meeting. Let’s also admit that we rarely find such a person ready to go at their first meeting. Plug-and-play board members are hard to come by. Some might be well-versed in finance but know little about the business of land conservation. Others might know everything about fire ecology and squat about reading a balance sheet. The truth is that it can take several years for many board members to really feel comfortable making decisions or even asking the right questions.

How can we craft an onboarding experience that reduces everyone’s learning curve?

One thing I know for sure: The two-hour model of Saturday afternoon orientation experience doesn’t work. And NO-ONE reads the board manual – save the paper.

So my idea is to create a Scavenger Hunt – one that will take a year and a Guide to complete. Create a checklist of articles, activities, and social experiences that each board member is expected to complete within their first year of service. Assign a Guide (mentor) who is equally accountable for their completing the checklist prior to their first-year anniversary.

Don’t give the newbies anything else to do. They come to meetings and they complete the scavenger hunt – that’s all in their first year.

On the one-year anniversary of their board service, ask them to schedule a meeting with the Chair (and maybe the Guide, and maybe the Executive Director) to discuss how they might best fit into the current organizational structure.

In creating your checklist, consider what the organization might need them to learn about the business of conservation, the role of board members, how money flows into and out of the organization, and the personalities and politics that make everything interesting.

Here’s a starter list:

To be completed within the first year of service:

  1. Read and sign the Board Member Job Description
  2. Read and sign the Conflict of Interest Policy
  3. Sit in on one meeting of each of the organization’s Standing Committees
  4. Shadow an easement monitor on landowner visits for one day
  5. Walk the trails of one of the signature properties the organization owns or has protected; (extra credit: walk the same trail twice – once with a Guide, and once as a Guide, showing the property to someone else)
  6. Call three donors to say “Thank You” (with coaching)
  7. Shadow a fundraiser on at least one donor visit
  8. Attend one organizational event (annual meeting, gala, fundraiser, or similar)
  9. Ask a Guide to walk you through the organization’s project selection criteria and how it is applied to new projects
  10. Visit the website (extra credit: give money through the web site so you can see how it works)


My hypothesis is that board members having checked off the above things during their first year will be better prepared for their duties as board members than if they had not. But taken a step further, board members having served as Guides for new board members will be better prepared as well. It’s one thing to know something well enough to use it. It’s quite another to know something well enough to teach it to others.

Last, I mentioned the end-of-year meeting with the Chair. This is the meeting where the Chair assigns the new board member to a committee or to committees. S/he should ask: What did you like/enjoy most about your first year? What would you like to learn more about? How do you see yourself fitting in most comfortably?

And my personal favorite: When it comes time for you to leave service, what would you like to look back on and say that you accomplished?


So think about this in terms of your own organization. What would you add to the Scavenger Hunt Checklist?





PS: The subject of this blog has been influenced to no small degree by my work with Nancy Moore. Our partnership, Conservation Consulting Group, has led us all over the country to work with land trusts on organizational Needs Assessments, AYO facilitation, and Strategic Planning. I am grateful for the creativity, wisdom, and experience she brings to our work together.


Photo by Joshua Earle courtesy of Unsplash.com.

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  • Suzan
    Posted at 19:24h, 22 January

    Anita at INHF forwarded this to us at the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. We’re going on our 3rd year and board development is key this year as nearly half of our board is new members (first time at full complement). I’ve tweaked this and am headed into our first meeting of the year tomorrow ready to put it to good use. Thank you!

  • Gwen E Marrion
    Posted at 10:47h, 17 January

    David – our Director Search Subcommittee just met last night so this is timely and really helpful. Thank you very much. I learn a lot from your blog.

  • David Allen
    Posted at 10:14h, 17 January

    From my In-Box this morning:

    You’ve created a buzz with this – it’s being forwarded among our folks as a concept we love.

    My only dissent: Here at INHF, we have the exceptions to the rule that “no one reads the manual.” Most of our recruits read it before our orientation meeting, and are asking questions that show they’ve read it. Amazing – I know! We seem to attract readers – which is good, since our board packets can run to 100 pages and more.