So you’ve got some great new board members that have just joined your organization, and they are excited about supporting your mission. That’s great! But before they jump right in attending meetings and signing up for committees, we recommend you spend a bit of time and energy orienting them to the way you do business, your expectations of them and how they can most effectively support you in your goals.
Ensuring that your board members are well-prepared from the beginning will help you avoid potential legal or ethical issues and will also help you and your new members determine whether or not they and your organization are a good fit. A thorough education and orientation of new members upfront helps smooth the way for their effective incorporation into your board.
How to Prepare New Board Members
- Present them with a member handbook. If you don’t already have a formal board member manual or handbook we recommend that you create one, but in the meantime, at least present new members with a packet of materials on your organization that they can use to familiarize themselves at the beginning of the orientation process. This packet should include documents like a formal job description with expectations, the history of your organization, an organizational chart, a board roster with bios, policies and bylaws, meeting notes from the past year or two, your Annual Report and audited financial statement, your strategic plan, mission and vision statement, a meeting and events calendar, committees list, contacts and any other documents that are relevant for your particular organization.
- Make sure they sign a member agreement. If they have not already done so, your board members should sign a member agreement that ensure that they understand what is entailed in board membership and what is expected of them.
- Discover any potential conflicts of interest. Ask any new members to fill out a questionnaire about any potential conflicts they may have. Your members may not even be aware that they have conflicts of interest that could be a serious legal issue for you. Ferret those out now before they become a problem for your organization.
- Create an in-person orientation session. Invite your new board members to a special session (or several sessions depending on how much information there is to cover) to welcome and educate them about their new role. Invite existing board members to attend if they like. They may find the refresher helpful. Plus, it will give them a chance to greet the new members and share their own insights. At the very least, the meeting should include your board chair, executive director, nominating and governance committee chair, and development person, if you have all these roles in your organization.
- Have an agenda. It’s easy for an orientation session to get really long-winded with questions and tangential side topics. Try to keep the session on track so that it doesn’t start to lose focus and become overwhelming. Break it into more than one meeting if needed. Or plan for an all-day orientation on a Saturday, broken up with lunch, a tour or tours and some opportunities for networking and getting to know each other.
- Leave some time for questions. Your new members will undoubtedly have questions. Depending on how many new members you are welcoming, be sure to leave an appropriate amount of time to hear and answer questions.
- Train on specialized software or procedures. Don’t assume that all your board members are computer-savvy enough to figure out your systems if you use any specialized board management software or have required paperwork procedures. Leave time to orient new members on how to use your internal procedures and systems or set up a special session for that.
- Find out their personal goals and interests. It may be tempting to immediately assign the new board member to a committee that has the most need, but spend a little time ascertaining the new member’s strengths and interests, and allow them to choose where and how they’d like to offer their unique skills and talents.
- Go on location. If possible, arrange to have the orientation process include a visit to a location or locations where your organization’s efforts can be seen in action. The initial parts of joining a board that are mostly filling out paperwork and signing agreements can be somewhat dry or tedious. Be sure to keep your new members excited by showing them what it’s all for. If an in-person tour is not feasible, show some video footage or photos that highlight the impact of your work.
- Buddy up! Going forward, assign an established board member to be a mentor to each new appointee. This mentor will help answer the many questions that the new member will likely have and help them negotiate their role and feel welcomed.