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How to Onboard a First-Time Board Member in 6 Simple Steps


Jacqui Catrabone

How to Onboard a First-Time Board Member in 6 Simple Steps by Debra Thompson and Jacqui Catrabone, Strategy Solutions

As the Executive Director (ED) of a nonprofit organization, you and the Governance Committee have a responsibility to prepare new board members for successful board service. It’s probably become second nature for you.

But, when’s the last time you onboarded a first-time board member? This is someone who has no prior board service experience. Did you change up the onboarding process to meet the unique needs of the first-time board member?

If you want to recruit a young professional or an individual who’s never served on a board before, there’s a special onboarding process that must be followed.

Unlike a new board member with prior experience, the first-time board member should be met with an extra level of education and engagement. Not recognizing the unique learning needs could result in a poor outcome for you and your new board member.

Here are the six steps for onboarding a first-time board member:

     1.  Review Items on the Board Member Orientation Checklist

The orientation checklist includes all the items nonprofits should review when they orient a new board member, one with prior experience and one without. This checklist comes from The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector.

It involves the basics like background on your organization, current strategic plan, office tour, board member responsibilities, bylaws, leadership of organization and more.

Reviewing the orientation checklist should be sufficient training for new board members with prior board service experience, but it will notbe enough for first-time board members. So, now let’s get into some of the “extras.”

     2.  Explain What Policies Are & the Role the Board Has in Policy Development

There is a list of policies every organization should have in place to ensure that all legal requirements are met. It’s important that your first-time board member understands the concept of policies, why you have them and why you follow them.

Policy oversight and development is an essential board role, as this work is heavily tied to legal compliance of the nonprofit. Your first-time board member should also understand how the board reviews/approves policies — once every three to five years, some more often than that.

     3.  Explain What Committees Are & How the Board Functions

Your first-time board member must understand that boards have committees to do policy and project work on behalf of the entire board. Committees act as a container that you (the ED) should be asking for help, within their areas of expertise, to get a project done.

If someone has never served on a board, it’s important to give them the appropriate context for what they’re doing. Explain what a committee is, what committees do, why the board meeting agenda is the way it is, etc.

Some nonprofits aren’t organized with committees, so you must describe how yourboard functions. If you do have committees, review them with your first-time board member, including what each committee does in detail.

     4.  Assign Them a Board Mentor

A critical step that often gets overlooked when onboarding a first-time board member is assigning them a mentor. This can be any current board member who has long-standing experience with board service and the organization as a whole.

The mentor should prioritize personal interaction with the new board member, getting to know them over lunch or breakfast. They must create a safe space for the first-time board member to ask questions that may feel “stupid.”

It’s also important that the board mentor and new member swap phone numbers so they can text questions during board meetings. The board mentor can help decipher between a question that should be asked out loud in the meeting, and a question that can be answered after the meeting.

The mentor should sit next to the new member at board meetings and follow up to ask how things are going. Review the board mentor’s checklist for more guidance on how to give the first-time board member what they need.

     5.  Reestablish Agreed-Upon Meetings Times (If Possible)

You want your first-time board member to be engaged, and it’s hard for that to happen when they can’t make your meeting times and must resort to reading a long email with information they don’t fully understand.

The more young professionals you recruit to serve on your board, the more flexible you need to be with meeting times, keeping in mind that they may work a 9-5 job and/or have kids.

It’s possible that refreshing your meeting times will benefit existing board members too. No one wants a board meeting with five people in attendance when the board has nine or 11 members.

Plus, you’re more likely to get buy-in for help with project work if you’re able to ask for it in the context of a board meeting where you can explain the importance of the board completing the activity that you request.

     6.  Instruct Them on How to Talk About the Organization & Their Role on the Board

Part of feeling connected to the board is being able to talk about the organization. The ED should develop a handful of talking points for the new board member so that they can feel comfortable talking about the agency and their role on the board.

This helps to further reinforce their role as a board member, and ensure that they are sharing positive and accurate information about the organization and their role.

When onboarding a first-time board member, it’s helpful to remember that board service is similar to a new job. And you wouldn’t want to be thrown into a new job without adequate training.

Follow these 6 simple steps for onboarding and your new board member will be able to confidently engage, bring a fresh perspective and be a good ambassador in the community.

If you have any questions or need some support in structuring the onboard process for a first-time board member, Strategy Solutions is here.

With more than 25 years of experience, we’ve worked with both nonprofit and for-profit companies through organizational change and growth.

Debra Thompson and Jacqui Catrabone are licensed consultants, trainers and peer reviewers for the The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector. Contact us

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