The Cultural Challenge of Board Orientation

There may be no such thing as a dumb question, but new board members aren’t always trained to understand that. Orientation should cover the importance of openness along with the nuts and bolts.

When it comes to leading an association, ignorance is a virtue—so long as board members acknowledge that ignorance.

That’s one of the helpful pieces of advice that comes from a new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. In it, Stanford business professors William F. Meehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker address matters of mission, strategy, team-building, finance, and more. We’ve covered their research on board effectiveness and term limits here before, and a theme tends to emerge in their writing regarding governance—if the people you have on your board are incurious, or only narrowly curious, you don’t want them on your board.

The simplest orientation tools won’t do much in the face of the problem that orientation can be culturally difficult.

“Ask stupid questions, until you figure out what the smart questions are,” they write in Engine of Impact. “Much of board dysfunction results from board members’ reluctance to contribute actively to board discussions for fear that they will appear uninformed our out of sync. You are a talented and scarce resource. Dive in—the water is fine!”

That’s easier said than done, though, for at least two reasons. First, they write, board meetings are often structured in such a way as to close off conversation, not encourage it. “The agenda of a typical nonprofit board meeting consists of pre-baked committee reporting that is designed to preclude discussion—and, truth be told, nonprofit staff often like it that way because it keeps board members from suggesting ideas that might be unrealistic or generate unnecessary work.” A second reason it’s difficult is that board members may not be well-oriented enough about their duties to even recognize the virtue of asking questions.

That point comes via a recent study on association board service by the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles and the George Mason University law school, which found some serious orientation gaps at associations. According to the study, only 45 percent of board members surveyed said their organization had a “defined onboarding process,” and only 46 percent say their onboarding experience prepared them to be an effective board member. And when board members aren’t sure what they’re doing, that timidity risks spilling over into their decision-making. “When people are uncertain about what’s expected of them, they probably tend to be reluctant to be more engaged,” Dr. David K. Rehr, one of the study’s authors, told me.

Board orientation isn’t complicated in any practical sense—it’s a matter of educating volunteer leaders in the mechanics of the organization and the responsibilities they have, legal and otherwise, toward it. Earlier this year I wrote about how the corrosion-industry association NACE International made that training more palatable and easier to access by breaking down orientation topics in a set of brief videos. And there are plenty of materials published by ASAE and others that are designed to deliver relevant orientation information without feeling (too much) like homework.

But even the simplest orientation tools won’t do much in the face of the problem that orientation can be culturally difficult—that board members aren’t naturally inclined to think strategically in the way an association demands, and that association leaders, per Meehan and Jonker, aren’t always highly motivated to change that. There are methods for getting board members to get more engaged—Meehan and Jonker recommend that the governance committee spend time not just looking for fresh talent but assessing the board members already in the room, making their return to the board a condition of their performing well on the assessment. Assessments of any sort is rare for board members, though: their research says that only 51 percent of them receive “regular and specific feedback on their participation and involvement that helps them improve.”

The board leads the association, but it needn’t be expected to take successful orientation into its own hands. Ultimately, staff leaders need to establish a tone that makes clear that they are encouraged to bring their ideas, to ask questions (even stupid ones!), and focus on mission. “Senior leadership needs to ensure that each board member understands expectations,” write the authors of the Heidrick & Struggles/GMU report. “Open lines of communication are critical to establishing a culture of honest discussion and confirming board members are prepared and willing to contribute before, during, and after formal board meetings.”

The crucial question for those charged with orienting board members is: How well am I helping them do that?

How does your board-orientation process encourage not just an understanding of the association’s structure, but a culture of inquisitiveness? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Maxiphoto/iStock/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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!