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Welcome New Board Members: Onboarding tips to foster leaders

Follow these onboarding essentials to more effectively welcome new board members and set up successful future generations of leadership for your nonprofit.

May 10, 2022
6 min read

When new members join your nonprofit board, eager to make an impact and drive your mission forward, chances are they don’t fully grasp the extent of the responsibilities they’re taking on.

On top of overseeing complex marketing strategies and delicate budgeting details, many new board members are actively preparing to become your nonprofit’s next generation of leadership. This means inheriting a nation of supporters and a vast network of partners that need to be effectively cultivated, coordinated, and communicated with.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pretty overwhelming burden to shoulder, and all too often newer board members are left disheartened when they haven’t been properly prepared for these challenges. That’s what makes the onboarding process so important—when new board members are given the support they need right from the start, they’ll have the right foundation to flourish into the capable and passionate leaders your organization needs

To help you get a grip on your new board member welcome processes, we’ll explore the following fundamental training, management, and board member engagement best practices:

  • Identify and train onboarding leaders.
  • Prepare a comprehensive onboarding packet.
  • Give new members various engagement opportunities.
  • Ask for feedback and constantly strive to improve.

Let’s kick things off by taking a look at the role of current board members in the onboarding process.

Identify and train onboarding leaders. 

Who’s better suited to prepare new board members for the challenges of their new position than current members? Experienced with onboarding and board member duties, current board members should be integrated into the welcome process as both program coordinators and mentors.

For example, consider these two roles your current board members could take on to support newcomers:

  • Board buddies. Ease the pressure of joining a new nonprofit board by assigning a friendly “buddy” (a seasoned board member) to new members. Buddies should meet one-on-one with newcomers before they’re introduced to the team, periodically touch base, and answer questions. This gives new board members a work-related resource and a social entry point into your team as they’re getting adjusted.
  • Onboarding committee members. To manage and iron out the logistics of your overall onboarding process, organize a dedicated onboarding committee from current board members. This committee should work together to establish and administer onboarding procedures, like creating a short orientation meeting or coordinating new member announcements on social media. 

With current members pitching in, you can personalize the onboarding process, standardize training and welcome procedures, and give new members a friendly resource to guide them into their board member experience. This is incredibly important for bigger leadership teams, allowing them to successfully integrate new members into their complex, bustling organizations. 

Additionally, these steps are also key for small teams to make a bigger impact on their communities! These strategies give new board members a far better understanding of your nonprofit’s culture and operations, allowing them to seamlessly integrate into the tapestry of your team and form meaningful relationships with other members, supporters, and prospects.

Prepare a comprehensive onboarding packet.

With all the work that comes with leading a nonprofit organization, it’s no wonder that there are so many documents that crop up throughout every program your board manages. The onboarding process is no exception, but there are steps you can take to keep new board members from being overwhelmed by the flood of paperwork sure to come their way.

Instead of confusing newcomers with wave after wave of reports, briefs, and spreadsheets, centralize your information into a dedicated onboarding packet. This packet should be an easily digestible but comprehensive resource, like a crash course for everything they need to know.

For example, Boardable’s guide to new board member onboarding recommends including these important documents in your packet:

  • A history one-pager of your organization
  • An outline of board roles and responsibilities
  • A copy of organizational by-laws
  • A rundown of your organization’s financial data
  • A list of current leadership and board members
  • An event and meeting calendar
  • A list of committees, their members, and their responsibilities

True, some of your new board members may have years of experience working in similar leadership positions and could take to their roles like ducks to water. However, it’s undeniable that your mission-driven board needs young professionals to help carry the torch and lead your nonprofit into the future. And a detailed, dedicated onboarding resource will prove invaluable to them as they learn the ropes and work to find their place in your leadership team.

Give new members various engagement opportunities.

Being a part of a nonprofit board is more than just clocking in and out and checking off assignments on a list. The spirit of being a part of a mission and a passionate member of a team working to improve the world is absolutely critical.

To push your nonprofit towards continued success, board members should have a tight-knit culture where everyone is comfortable collaborating, sharing ideas, and speaking their minds. This can be tricky for new board members, which is why you should brainstorm plenty of engagement opportunities to hasten their initiation into your leadership team.

For instance, you could organize:

  • New board member introductions
  • Social events outside of work
  • Icebreakers and team-building exercises

But what if your new board members, or several current members, are working remotely at the moment, and can’t physically meet up for these opportunities? That doesn’t mean that you can’t create meaningful engagement opportunities. 

Leverage your board software to organize virtual or hybrid icebreakers, game nights, roundtables, and other activities. This allows you to transform in-person events into engaging online experiences for your new board members.

Additionally, take this spirit of engagement and participation beyond just one-time events and into your recurring meetings. Procedural board meetings can be nerve-wracking for new members, not to mention tedious for seasoned members, and it can make a significant impact on new members’ experiences and the productivity of the meetings themselves to make them more engaging. 

In particular, re:Charity’s article on virtual board meeting engagement suggests participation strategies such as asking each board member to speak at the start of the meeting, enabling chat and reaction features, and periodically checking in with members who need more attention—like remote attendees and new members.

Ask for feedback and constantly strive to improve.

As your nonprofit develops, the culture and operations of your organization evolve, and your software adapts, your onboarding process is going to have to adjust to these changes. There will always be areas to improve in fresh and exciting ways to better address new board members’ needs. The key is to be proactive about identifying and addressing areas for improvement. 

One of the best ways you can do this is by creating a flexible onboarding experience and event feedback surveys. These surveys should collect information from new board members about their overall onboarding experiences and the specific activities they attended throughout the process.

Some good questions to ask on your broader onboarding experience survey include:

  • What content did you receive, and what pieces of content did you find most valuable?
  • What communication did you receive before your first meeting, and did these communications help prepare you for your experiences?
  • How did you access your board training materials, and did you find it to be an easily navigable process?
  • Do you feel that you have an adequate understanding of our organization’s mission and values, as well as your responsibilities and role within the board?

By consistently getting a first-hand account of your onboarding process, how it succeeded, and what you failed to do, you can take actionable next steps to make an even more positive experience for future board members.

The onboarding experience is a critical time for new board members to form opinions about their specific role, your leadership team, and even your nonprofit as a whole. So, while new board members may be stepping into their positions with a passion to network and make meaningful contributions to your mission, you should still do everything in your power to create a positive, enjoyable transition into what will hopefully be their longtime future with your organization. 

With these insightful onboarding strategies, you should be well-equipped to educate, integrate, and inspire new board members to grow into the effective leaders your mission needs.

Jeb Banner

Jeb Banner

Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a board management software provider for mission-driven boards. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAc

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