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Hit the Ground Running: A Guide to Success in Your First 90 Days as a Board Member

Elected to a nonprofit board? Ensure success in your first 90 days with tips on preparation, joining committees, understanding responsibilities & setting goals.
byLisa WittigonMay 20, 2024

Congratulations! You were just elected onto the governing board of a nonprofit that is serving your community. How can you ensure that your first few steps as a board member are productive and beneficial to the organization? Taking some insights from Michael Watkins’ book, “The First 90 Days,” here are a few suggestions for how you can get started on the right foot and set yourself up to be a leader in the boardroom.

First things first - prepare and learn. Make sure you know who your constituents are and how they are being served by the nonprofit. If you haven’t had the chance yet to conduct a site visit or meet with program staff, now’s your chance. Get your calendar out and either schedule a meeting with a member of the program staff or set up a tour to visit the nonprofit and see the work their team is implementing. As a board member, you will be responsible for shaping the long-term vision for the organization; you must have not only an understanding of the work that is being done - but also an understanding of the perspectives of those being served. What do the students, patients, or clients say their needs are? You can make a greater impact through your service if you know how those being served are affected by the nonprofit’s programming.

Next, you’ll want to make sure you join a committee. Similar to Watkins’ advice on creating alliances and building teams, successful board members step up and join a committee soon after their election. Most nonprofit boards are structured in a way such that the majority of their work happens in their various committees. Think about what skills, experiences, and perspectives you may have to offer and ask to join a few committee meetings during your first couple of months to determine which committee could use your support. The main time commitment of your service should be the work you do within committees, so it’s important to find one that aligns with your skills and interests.

Just as you would in any new role, make sure you fully understand your responsibilities as a board member. At Cause Strategy Partners, we provide BoardLead candidates with access to our Good Governance Bootcamp - a series of modules that outline the responsibilities of board service. The nonprofit should also provide an overview of board member roles and responsibilities, and may also lay out an onboarding process that includes or even requires specific training. If there are any questions you have about your new responsibilities as a board member, now is the time to seek out those answers. Learning the general roles and responsibilities while gaining alignment on the specific expectations of your organization is essential for making sure you are prepared for your role as a board member, and will also give you the confidence to speak up and ask questions when the time comes.

Finally, establish your goals for board service. Similar to a “First 90 Days Plan” in a new job, board members can and should establish short, medium, and long-term goals for their service with the support of the Executive Director and Board Chair. What will be your early wins? What does success look like to you and your board’s leadership? Some common questions to ask yourself are:

  • What is your personal fundraising goal for your first year as a board member? How will you advance this in your first three, six, and nine months?

  • How will your skill sets add value in the boardroom? Is there a particular project that the organization can lean on you to support as you step into your new role?

  • How else might you deepen your relationship with the organization? Are there events, performances, or fundraisers you may want to play a role in?

  • How will you advocate for your organization beyond the boardroom? What individuals, networks, communities, or organizations can you connect to your organization to help amplify its work?

It is so important to set yourself up for success when stepping into the boardroom. Guiding a nonprofit organization is a huge responsibility and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Make sure you are asking questions, seeking out the support you need, staying open to new ideas, and sticking to your goals. With this in place, you’re sure to make an early and substantial impact on the cause that you care about.

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