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Report: Board members need to be better prepared

Volunteers are the heart of nonprofits. From helping with meetings to serving on boards of directors, the people who commit countless hours to helping an organization thrive are invaluable.

However, sometimes, due to lack of processes and knowledge transfer, the individuals who sit on the board of an organization – those same people who make critical decisions – may not be armed with enough information.

That’s according to a new report by Heidrick & Struggles, conducted in partnership with George Mason University.

The overall takeaway from the report: Board members need better onboarding.

In the survey, the majority of board members said their onboarding experience was informal. In fact, 20 percent of respondents didn’t meet the CEO of an organization or other key leaders. And only 36 percent reported an experienced board member mentored them.

“These organizations are changing rapidly, and the lack of a formal onboarding process is hindering their ability to help board members understand expectations and serve effectively,” the study says. “But the survey questions on board orientation highlight several significant gaps in current onboarding processes. Just one-third of incoming board members received an explanation about the board’s evaluation of the CEO—and yet half of respondents indicated that the entire board oversees hiring, promoting and terminating the CEO.”

So what needs to happen?

Onboarding should be consistent. There should be a formal, documented process for board orientations – one that includes explaining the organization’s mission, the key issues it faces and industry knowledge, the report argues.

Board members said more dialog with fellow board members and regular meetings with association leaders, along with mentoring, would better help them learn how they can best serve the organization and foster industry improvement.

Additionally, others said formal instruction, such as bylaws, strategic plans, financial contribution requirements and minutes from past board meetings, would be a helpful.

The good news: Despite feeling unprepared in some cases, three out of four respondents said their organizations do a good job educating them before meetings.

“Boards are under increasing demands to fully engrain themselves in the organizational vision, contribute to financial performance and generate sustainable results, so it’s worrisome that most boards in the association and nonprofit space lack a formal board orientation that sets up board members for success," said Bill Hudson, partner and member of the Education, Nonprofit & Social Enterprise Practice at Heidrick & Struggles.

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