A few years back, I was contacted to join a Board of Directors for a direct service organization.
I had been looking for the right volunteer position that would be interested in my volunteer management skills and not focus so much on my fundraising potential.
The President of the Board contacted me and we met for coffee where I was provided with a summary of the organization and an overview of the the role of the Board and at that meeting was asked to join the board.
I was intrigued by the type of organization and wanted to help in any way that I could, I also felt that I had something to give to the Board from my experience.
Fast forward 3 years later, I have left the Board after feeling that I had done what I could to help and felt that I was not really getting what I needed from the experience but there were some lessons learned from this that I wanted to share.
Firstly, when I joined there was no real “orientation” to the organization or the Board and I think that was a key indicator of where we were to go from there. I came to a meeting and had to figure out where we were at and where we were heading on my own.
Secondly, the learning curve was huge, and I had to figure out what I did not know on my own, to ask the right questions
Thirdly, when I did decide to leave the board, there was no opportunity for an exit interview, a way for the Board to learn from my experience.
Finally, my experience on this Board was fantastic, I learned a lot, I shared a lot, I contributed a lot but there were lessons learned. The Board members were wonderful, a great group of young and enthusiastic potential leaders and it was a great experience but it also had some learnings that I wanted to share with you.
Orientation and training is one of the most important steps in the volunteer management cycle. Without the appropriate orientation and training, you are at risk of creating an environment of friction amongst the volunteers as each member is at a different stage of learning and contributing.
So here are some key components to a successful orientation:
Invite the perspective board member to a meeting prior to engaging them: you may want to set up a meeting for more than one perspective members and use that as an opportunity to provide a summary and allow them to ask questions or you may want to take a portion of a board meeting for potential members to sit in on
Provide an Orientation package which includes contact information, background, financials, strategic direction, mission and vision, previous minutes and any other information that will help to provide context
Follow up with a personal phone call with a experienced board member after the first meeting and a few subsequent meetings where the volunteer can ask questions in a way that will not take time away from the board meetings. This is key to bridging the gap between long time board members and new ones on a learning curve
Follow up, follow up, follow up……there are key times to follow up with board members: especially after the first meeting, after three months, when there are some major changes, and definitely through the exit process
Provide support from past board member in a mentorship capacity. This is also a great way to build a strong succession plan.
Role descriptions are the foundation of board excellence: members need to know what their role is and how it fits into the larger picture and they need to be accountable to this role which requires regular check ins
Provide board training: I find that the most significant issues around boards and committees are based on retention and succession and to minimize these issues, it is key to provide training on board leadership and best practices as well as any training related to the direction or process that the board in undertaking such as strategic planning, financial planning etc…. you want to ensure that all board members are equally engaged and ready to participate in the necessary planning process
The ultimate goal of orientation and training is to set the foundation for long term retention and succession planning, and some key thoughts for retaining volunteers are:
Clarify the role of the volunteer and your relationship with them
Set clear goals and expectations
Provide policies and procedures
Provide specific, interesting, meaningful tasks
Treat them with respect
Explain how what they do fits into the bigger picture
Create a social, welcoming environment
Ensure that the right volunteers are in the right role at the right time
Review role descriptions on an annual basis and adjust accordingly
Allow some flexibility in the roles so that volunteers can both learn and share skills
Understand your volunteers by communicating to them on a regular check in basis
Finally, recognize the time and passion that individuals are providing in a meaningful way to them. Get to know your board members because you are entrusting them with a lot of responsibilities and recognizing their true worth is key to success.
Feel free to reach out to me at any time for comment, training or advise at email@example.com and remember that a little training can go a long way.
A volunteer lifecycle is like glass: may look solid from the outside but is fluid within