Associations Need Better Orientation for Board Members, Study Says

A survey by Heidrick & Struggles and George Mason University of more than 500 nonprofit board members shows how a lack of formal onboarding processes hampers board effectiveness.

Board members are increasingly attuned to the importance of setting strategy at the associations they serve, according to a new study, but weak onboarding processes may not be adequately preparing them for that task.

Association and Nonprofit Boards: Maximizing Effective Service,” published by the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, in collaboration with George Mason University, is based on a survey of 509 board members conducted in January and February 2017. Among the key findings:

  • Only 45 percent say their organization had a “defined onboarding process” when they joined the board.
  • Only 46 percent say their onboarding experience prepared them to be an effective board member.
  • While a large proportion of respondents say those orientations effectively cover matters such as the mission of the board (92 percent) and board responsibilities (83 percent), a substantially smaller proportion say they were trained on the strategic plan (67 percent), the board decision-making process (60 percent), and evaluation of the CEO (32 percent).
  • 68 percent of respondents say the board focuses on where the organization should be in five years’ time.

A lot of people haven’t really focused on orientation beyond just, “Hey, let’s get together so we can all meet each other.”

Dr. David K. Rehr, a former association executive, professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, and coauthor of the report, said that more board members are recognizing their strategic role at associations, but that orientation processes haven’t caught up with that recognition. “A lot of people haven’t really focused on orientation beyond just, ‘Hey, let’s get together so we can all meet each other,’” he said. “We need to set the right expectations for these really important people who are going to guide the future of the organization.”

That lack of orientation may stand in the way of boards taking the riskier actions that can help support the organization in the future. “When people are uncertain about what’s expected of them, they probably tend to be reluctant to be more engaged,” Rehr said.

Association governance consultant John Barnes concurs with the conclusions of the report. “Too many associations take a ‘checkbox’ approach to their onboarding process,” he said. “They hit on the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience on a phone call and consider their board members oriented.”

And Leigh Wintz, FASAE, CAE, principal consultant at Tecker International, said that good onboarding is essential to give board members confidence to do their work. “Having a one-hour meeting of the new people prior to their first meeting to tell them how to submit their expense forms and meet the staff doesn’t do that,” she said. “Board members want to know how the agenda is developed and strategies are implemented, what units are responsible for what activities, how decisions are made, and what values drive decision-making.”

The process, says Julian Ha, partner at Heidrick & Struggles, needs to be a formal one that establishes an understanding not just of the financial and strategic goals of the organization but also its structure. “A comprehensive orientation package would entail not just financial materials and paperwork, but a thoughtful introduction to the organization and the senior leaders,” he said. “So that when you’re coming in you’ll know who does what and why.”

Regardless of how associations do it, Rehr says, they should feel more motivated to get boards up to speed faster. “If you’re running a business and only 51 percent of your board knows really what you’re doing and feels good at it, that’s a problem,” he said.

(Squaredpixels/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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