Becoming a nonprofit board member is a rewarding experience, but it can be overwhelming if there isn’t an effective onboarding process for new members. Studies have found that almost half of all nonprofit board members would say their organizations didn’t have a “defined onboarding process.” This is significant because a board member who is only half prepared is, at most, half effective.
A multi-layered approach to bringing new members to the board can position an organization for success and set it apart from others in the same field. Nonprofit board members are often not paid, and it is the fulfillment they get from helping to steer the nonprofit that is their reward. If your organization isn’t preparing new board members with an effective onboarding process, they will be less likely to stick around.
Effective Multi-Layered Orientation
When most people hear the word “orientation,” they are thinking of a long boring slideshow from an HR department. Effective orientation isn’t just one meeting but a process through which a new nonprofit board member becomes familiar with the organization.
This multi-layered approach is what will make new board members feel welcome and understand their role in the organization.
A recent survey by Heidrick & Struggles found that 35 percent of nonprofit board members did not meet with any senior leadership before joining. An introductory phone call with the executive director and the board chair is a crucial first step in a multi-layered orientation process. This phone call should welcome the new board member and familiarize him or her with the organization in general terms. It does not need to be an in-depth review of every detail about the nonprofit.
A friendly social event is an excellent way to start the nonprofit’s relationship with a new board member. At this event, current board members and leadership can come together to welcome the new board member and provide a positive first impression of the organization. A quick, informal (but informative) lunch session would be a great example.
Social meetings like this allow the new board member to connect with existing board members, planting the seeds from which organic relationships can sprout. Experienced board members can answer questions and mentor the new board member.
Building an Information Package
Receiving a big stack of documents is inevitable for new board members, but make sure that big stack of documents is filled with sufficient informative and engaging information. A good information package is straightforward and contains materials that a new board member can take home, read, digest, and review. It should serve as a quick reference guide to anything a new board member may need while adjusting to this new role.
These are all things that might be second nature to long-term board members but which will be vital for new board members to understand, reference, and question.
History of the Organization
An outline of your organization’s history based on the background information from your website can be tailored to new board members. Share your organization’s highlights and biggest successes. New board members should be able to read the history of the nonprofit and feel proud that they are a part of this organization.
A list of the roles of board members — and the responsibilities that accompany those roles – can help a new member understand the organization’s governance structure. President, Treasurer, and Secretary are the most common roles, but many organizations will have additional roles that are specific to their needs. This should also include a list of the nonprofit’s current leadership. Brief bios, headshots, and contact information for the leadership and board members should be included.
Policy Rundown for New Board Members
What policies govern the organization? What are its by-laws? It is important for new board members to understand the organization’s decision-making process.
When first joining a nonprofit and learning its ins and outs, new board members can be a bit overwhelmed, but they are often energetic and enthusiastic about participating in whatever they can. Be sure to reach out and include them in the organization’s events, encouraging them to mark their calendars with upcoming dates.
It is important for new board members to fully understand the nonprofit’s mission. Additionally, identify for new board members what goals the organization’s governance has set for itself, and how the organization is working to achieve these goals.
Provide your new board members with a brief overview of the organization’s finances. This doesn’t need to be hundreds of budget spreadsheets, but it should give a new board member an idea of where the organization currently sits, where its money is coming from, and where it is going.
Have New Board Members Observe a Meeting
Getting to see how board meetings are run is an incredibly important part of a new board member’s orientation. Many nonprofits will use a form of Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct their business, but each organization will operate a little differently.
There should be ample opportunity at the end of the meeting for the new board member to ask questions. Likewise, there should be an opportunity for the current board members to ask questions of the new board member. This shouldn’t be an interrogation, but it should give the new board member an opportunity to show off skills and share background information in a more formal setting.
Provide Space for Learning and Questions
Onboarding new board members require attention and energy. It involves considerable resources from the organization to create new relationships and explain processes and operational policies. This can involve reaching out to new members, allowing them to ask their questions, and asking your own questions to ensure they have the knowledge, resources, and confidence they need to be successful nonprofit board members.
To minimize the amount of time dedicated to onboarding new board members and to maximize member retention, executive directors need to take time to properly orient these new members. Providing space for learning and questions will strengthen their confidence and set them up for success. This means actively encouraging learning and questions in a judgment-free environment. When the answers to new board members’ questions come from people in leadership positions, it lets them know they are welcome and important to the organization.
New board members stimulate a nonprofit’s growth by adding new experiences and ideas to the organization. Get the most out of your new board members by taking a multi-layered approach to their orientation. You will be facilitating the kind of strong governance that guides strong organizations.
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