Orientation That's Ongoing
Getting to know a foundation takes more than one meeting and a briefing book.
When the board of the Cleveland Foundation expanded in March 2001, Corporate Secretary Leslie Dunford looked for a better way to orient the people who would be serving on it. "We wanted to bring new members up to speed without inundating them," Dunford recalls. "We thought we could accomplish that within an hour or two, but it just wasn't possible."
Orienting new trustees, a process common to all foundation boards, requires a great deal of time and effort. Why? Because a good board orientation has to accomplish many things at once: It introduces new members to the foundation (its mission, programs and people) while also acclimating them to the board (its structure, operations, roles and responsibilities).
While there may be no best way to run a perfect orientation, most foundations find that the best orientation is an ongoing one. But where to start?
Laying the Groundwork
Most boards give new members a complete handbook, a bible of board history, structure, practices, operations and more. Not only is it an essential introduction to the board, the handbook also serves as a useful reference throughout that member's tenure. It's best to distribute the handbook in advance of the first orientation meeting, along with the agenda for the orientation itself. Then they'll know what to expect and come prepared with questions. Some ideas on what to include in a handbook:
A Separate Event
An orientation should be held as a separate eventas a retreat or before a regular board meeting. Be sure to include lots of breaks and at least one meal to promote socializing and informal exchange of information and ideas.
Veteran board members, not the staff, should conduct most of the orientation. In most foundations, the governance committee works with the chief executive to plan and administer an orientation. For example, the Marion I. and Henry J. Knott Foundation includes the board development committee, the executive director and an experienced trustee. According to Knott Executive Director Greg Cantori, having a veteran there enriches the process. "Senior trustees can speak to the history of the foundationwhat the donors wanted and how the foundation has evolved through the years." This first-hand knowledge often enlivens the meeting and increases new members' enthusiasm and commitment.
As for the orientation agenda, most foundations customize theirs based on the specific information they want to impart. The session may start with a tour of the foundation's main office (if held on-site) and an introduction of key board members and staff. From there, a typical agenda might include an introduction to the field of philanthropy; an overview of the foundation's history, mission and so forth, together with a look at its strategic plan and communications; the board's structure, committee members and staff; what's expected of trustees (for example, in commitments of time and money); a review of finances and grantmaking programs, guidelines and processes; a discussion of liability and insurance coverage; as well as site visits to grantees.
Progress Over Time
Completion of the initial orientation should not end the educational process. Good governance practices are learned over time, and that requires periodic refreshers for old and new trustees alike.
"If you only see new board members at quarterly meetings, it's hard to keep them engaged after the initial orientation," says Leslie Dunford. "Our foundation assigns them to a committee where they work closely with staff. It's a great way to keep them educated and involved."
New member orientation can be a good time to refresh seasoned board members, as well. At the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, Executive Director Rayna Aylward devotes a small portion of each board meeting to reviewing the mission and priorities. The purpose is to remind the trustees why they are there, thereby reinforcing their common focus. Some foundations periodically devote an entire board meeting or retreat to a review of the organization's mission, policies, needs, successes, failures, etc.
Boards sometimes establish a buddy system, pairing a new member with a veteran who can answer any questions and help the member feel welcome. At the Knott Foundation, for example, new trustees accompany veteran board members on site visits as a part of their extensive training.
There are plenty of other ways to keep the learning coming, even after the initial orientation ends:
The following are published by the Council on Foundations, www.cof.org.
The Family Advisor: Trustee Orientation. Includes articles on board member responsibilities, advice on orientation, and sample board member job descriptions and policies. To order, contact Family Foundation Services at 202/467-0407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Guide for Community Foundation Board Members. Co-published by BoardSource (forthcoming in late 2002). Includes a glossary of terms. To order, contact Governing Board Programs at email@example.com.
Making the Most of Corporate Foundation Boards: Strategies and Practices. Members $75; Non-Members $120. To order, call 888/239-5221, MF, 9 a.m.5 p.m. EST, or visit www.cof.org and click "Publications." Order #1017.
Trustee Orientation Resource. Learn the responsibilities of a new board member from this compilation of insights provided by 12 grantmaking experts. Members $15; Non-Members $30. To order, call 888/239-5221, M-, 9 a.m.5 p.m. EST, or visit www.cof.org and click "Publications." Order #403.
Elaine Gast is editor of Family Matters, the Council on Foundations' newsletter for family foundations. This and other Docket Debate topics can also be found on the Council's Web site (www.cof.org) in the Family Foundation Services' Board Briefing series.