The board of directors of a non-profit are a very critical part of the organization. A common challenge for many non-profits is getting the volunteer directors engaged as soon as possible so that they can begin contributing to the organization’s mission. Without an effective board orientation for new members it can take a year before new directors begin to engage, or worse, they leave before their term ends.

Most everyone who volunteers on a board of directors starts their journey with enthusiasm and excitement. Usually they strongly believe in the mission of the organization and they want to make a difference for the people and communities the organization serves.

A board orientation is the perfect way to make sure the excitement and enthusiasm isn’t killed after 3 months, to engage your new board member from the beginning, and to create an effective board of directors where everyone is informed and pulling their weight.

Why should board orientation be a priority in your non-profit?

Board orientation helps retain directors and gets them engaged much sooner than if you didn’t have any orientation. Instead of sitting on the sidelines trying to figure things out in board meetings, the new member can contribute their ideas to the group quickly. The engagement will help with retention as well, as engaged board members are more likely to fulfill their terms, which reduces turnover.

Who is in charge of board orientation?

One of the biggest questions on board orientation is – who takes control of orienting new members? The quick answer is the governance committee, and if there is no governance committee than the chair of the board has the responsibility for orienting new members.

Many non-profits rely on the Executive Director to onboard new board members, but the role should rest at the board level. The Executive Director should be involved during the onboarding process but ultimately it is the current board members who onboard new board members, with the responsibility being written in the roles of the governance committee or, if no governance committee, the chair of the board.

What is in a board orientation plan?

Orientation can begin as soon as the recruitment process begins by including information in a candidate package. This gives the prospective candidate an indication as to whether they think the position and the organization is a fit for them. Apart from the recruitment process, once a candidate is fully signed on there are two parts to the onboarding plan. The first is a “board binder” or orientation document that includes the
necessary governance documents a new member will need. The second is a board orientation session where members of the board, staff, and other stakeholders can meet together and discuss the organization.

The orientation document

The orientation document is for new board members. At a minimum, the contents of the document should be:

  • The history of the non-profit and current mission and vision (1 page or less)
  • Organizational chart with job titles and names or vacancies
  • Job description of board member and board member agreement
  • Board development budget and plan
  • Performance measures and objectives of position (for board self-assessment)
  • Strategic plan
  • Current year objectives
  • Program highlights
  • Approved budget for current year and recent treasurer’s report
  • Recent audited financial statements with management letter
  • Board roles and responsibilities
  • List of current board members (add biographies)
  • List of board committees, chair, & members
  • Schedule of upcoming meetings
  • The organization’s by-laws, incorporation documents, and board policies, including management policies
  • Recent board meeting minutes
  • Agenda for first board meeting

Items can be added or modified as necessary depending on the specific non-profit. Also, the document should not take long to put together assuming that most of these items already exist and are written down. Making sure that the information is updated should also be taken into consideration and can usually be done when a new member is joining the board or at a minimum annually.

The board orientation session

The board orientation session involves the governance committee, the chair of the board, the executive director, and senior program people. Depending on the non-profit you may want to add more staff or board members. The chair of the board can run the meeting or they can delegate to an alternate, such as the chair of the recruitment committee to run the meeting.

The goal of the board orientation session should be to give the new members an idea of the culture of the organization and to introduce them to the people and personalities of the organization. It may be the first time that some people are introduced so it’s a great opportunity to get to know one another.

Depending on the background of the new members there may be an opportunity for some training in the orientation session. If the new members are not numbers people, the treasurer can provide financial training (an intro to the different types of accounting statements for example) and go over the format and purpose of his report.

The orientation session is also a great opportunity to invite existing members of the board to join. It gives them a chance to refresh their knowledge of the non-profit and join in on any training session.

The executive director should also give a presentation about the organization, sharing their vision and the place that new members have in that vision. The senior programs people can talk about the specific programs and industry in general to share details about the operations of the organization and give the new members a better sense of how the organization operates.

Finally there should be time for the new members to ask questions to staff and the board.

Summary

With board onboarding the benefits outweigh the costs. Getting your new members up-to-speed on the organization as quickly as possible where they can participate in effective discussions and make informed decisions is the overall goal. Creating an onboarding process doesn’t need to be complicated since most of the information is already available and can be compiled into a single document. The orientation session will provide a chance for new members to introduce themselves and get to know the other members of the board, and can be a source of training and a refresher for existing board members too.