Use Peer Mentors to Fast-Track New Nonprofit Directors

Boards are complex systems. Even for experienced board members, joining a new board always involves a period of transition, orientation, and assimilation. Two things will help get those new directors quickly up to speed: a small handbook and a mentor. Go here to read about the handbook. Now let’s look at how to use peer mentors to fast-track new directors . . .

The board chair assigns each new director his or her own peer mentor. The best mentors are current directors who have been on the board long enough to know what’s what, but not so long as to be on their way out or unable to remember what it was to be new. I recommend selecting directors from those near the end of their first terms who have demonstrated engagement with the board’s activities. They show up to meetings, they are effective on committees, they are responsive to board communications.

Mentoring prior to my first official meeting as a member of the board prepared me to be an active contributor . . . and reduced my anxiety about fitting into the board culture and meeting spoken and unspoken expectations. — Ernest Brooks, former board member of Rural School and Community Trust

How the Peer Mentoring Process Works

The assignment as mentor is for the first year of the new director’s term. After the board elects a new director, the chair should contact her to welcome her to the board. During that phone call, the chair should also tell the new director about her peer mentor and that the mentor will be in touch soon. Within the week, the mentor should call the new director. This first conversation is simple, short, and light on content. This call is not an in-depth training session — it’s simply an opportunity to connect and begin getting to know each other.

Over the course of the year, the mentor is the person that the new director contacts when she has questions. More importantly, the mentor takes the initiative to call two or three times during the year just to check in. The mentor is the person who makes contact a few days before the new director’s first board meeting to go over what to expect and any questions about the agenda and other materials. She might even offer to meet the new director at the airport or in the lobby of the meeting site.

The benefits of this mentoring relationship go beyond getting the new director up to speed quickly. Both the mentor and the new director develop a stronger connection to the board. Over time, the mentoring process builds stronger cohesiveness among all board members. The board learns more rapidly when it is doing things that don’t make sense, and provides an opening for new people to test ideas other than in full board meetings.

10-Minute Board Discussion

Which of our board members would make excellent mentors to new directors?


Creative Commons image by Flickr user yourdon

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