Associations are unique in many ways, but one thing they all have in common is the need for strong leadership at the helm – more specifically – your board of directors. So what happens once you’ve recruited or appointed the best people for the job? Setting them up for success can make all the difference and it should start with a thorough board of directors onboarding process.
An onboarding plan helps new board members understand their roles and responsibilities, familiarizes them with your organization's structure and operations, and ensures they have the resources needed to be successful in their roles.
While every organization is different, there are some essential elements that should be included in every board member's onboarding plan. Here are a few tips to help new members hit the ground running and make a meaningful impact on your organization from day one.
Why Is Board Orientation Important?
Board of directors onboarding is crucial for any association or nonprofit organization. While many of the expectations and insights into an organization’s structure can happen during board interviews, developing a board orientation packet or training can help with successful onboarding.
Not only does it help your new board members understand the mission of the organization and their role, but also it lays the groundwork for how the board operates and the expectations for them as board members. Additionally, it can create an opportunity for new board members to set and explore goals they hope to achieve within their role.
What Should New Board Member Orientation Include?
Before you can look for strategic ways to get your new board members involved, all associations should have a board member orientation well ahead of the first board meeting. Some of the topics you should focus on include:
- An exploration of the mission, values and goals of the organization.
- Current board members and key staff and volunteer members.
- Expectations, roles and responsibilities for new and existing board members.
- Committee structures, existing task forces and active projects.
- Background on financial policies and budget overviews.
- Details for meetings (such as agendas) and meeting schedules for the year.
Remember, the better your new board members understand the history of the organization, the current situation and where the strategic plan hopes to lead it, the quicker they make meaningful contributions.
5 Strategies for Onboarding New Board Members
Whether they’re first-time board members or your association is looking to tackle some complex initiatives, associations should look for ways to ease the transition during onboarding. Here are five strategies for better nonprofit board training.
1. Build an Organizational 101 Course
While some associations require their potential board members to have a strong understanding of the organization – either through membership or previous experience on a committee – that may not be the case for all. As part of a multi-step onboarding process for new board members, The Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards has developed an introductory course to do just that.
“It starts with some of the basic level things that a person needs to know – 101 on CLARB the organization – who we are, who our members are, what services we provide, our organizational structure and who our volunteer workforce includes,” says Veronica Meadows, Chief Strategy Officer of CLARB. “Sometimes the people who are coming on to leadership possess the leadership skills we need, but they don't have the deep, more detailed understanding of the organization.”
2. Understand Your New Board Members
Through the interview process, you likely came to understand the professional skills your new board members bring to the table from a strategic standpoint. But that may not be enough to ensure they’re doing their best work as a group once they’re in board meetings. One solution is to have a deeper understanding of them as individuals.
CLARB uses Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment to help establish a board environment that allows all board members to thrive. “Focusing on their strengths and talking about ‘here's how I function and work as an individual,’” says Andrea Elkin, PMO Manager. “It gave them confidence and helped new board members, or some of our quieter board members, join the conversations.”
There are plenty of options available out there, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and DISC personality test that can help your board gain a deeper understanding of factors like communication styles and strengths, which can help them collaborate more effectively.
3. Adjust Your Meeting Cadence
Board meetings are often based on an existing schedule, and for new board members, that can mean the first meeting they attend has significant implications, like an annual strategy review. This was the case for CLARB, and they quickly realized it wasn’t setting up new board members for success.
“We realized after doing that for several years that we're bringing in these brand new board members who are drinking from the firehose out of the gate,” says Meadows. “Our board takes their stewardship role in ensuring an effective organization for the future very seriously, so throwing new board members into that process at their first meeting didn't set them up very well for success.”
For CLARB, that translated into adjusting their strategic cycle to make the strategic review the last meeting of the year. “Now they've had three other board meetings to get the hang of it and more deeply understand the organization and what we're doing so that they can make higher-value contributions to the annual strategy review conversation,” says Meadows.
4. Get SMART About Goals and Milestones
What gets measured as an organization gets managed; the same goes for your board of directors. During the board onboarding process, new members should understand what the existing goals are for the organization, what growth opportunities there are and how they, specifically, will contribute.
Set goals and milestones for each board member, use your board meetings to track progress and see how existing members can work in a mentorship capacity to get those early wins for new board members.
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5. Provide Training and Development
Finally, don’t ignore professional development. While you may have chosen board members for their specific expertise – like finance or marketing – there are still opportunities to hone their skills to ensure they understand all aspects of their board impact.
For example, if one of your new members has little to no finance experience and is then asked to review and understand your association’s financial reports, that can be a difficult transition. Not only may they feel left out, but their lack of understanding can prevent them from being a strategic part of the solution.
Ensuring Success for New Board Members
When building your association’s board of directors, you want to be sure you have the best people available, not just in the short term but also for the future growth of your organization.
By developing a board of directors onboarding plan that includes strategies like an orientation course about your organization, creating more opportunities for strategic involvement and providing the upskilling they need to do so, not only will you have a more strategic board, but also you’ll create a foundation for a healthier board culture.
December 1, 2022