The best board member orientation: How to set your new directors immediately up for success

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In recent years, boards of directors and their roles have changed in a variety of ways, but one thing hasn’t: members vote and help direct the future of the organization from the time of their very first board meeting. This makes it essential for new board members to be oriented to their role as quickly and as well as possible. As Jane Garthson, president of the Garthson Leadership Centre says, “The point of orientation is make directors immediately effective.”

Dr. Rebecca Sutherns, founder and principal consultant of Sage Solutions adds, “You don’t want it to take a year for a board member to develop enough comfort and confidence to speak at the board table. You want them to be able to hit the ground running and contribute quickly.”

While bringing new members on board effectively is critical to the smooth functioning of the board, not all organizations do this well, as Sutherns reports. “I’ve seen boards that have good processes in place for orientation and others that do nothing. On the whole, most boards do something but don’t generally do it particularly well.”

Noreen Mian, executive director of Volunteer Manitoba, screens nonprofits as part of a matching program with new board members. She says that it is hit and miss whether organizations are aware of board governance training and how to get it.

Because good orientation is essential to the functioning of every nonprofit board, we talked with a variety of governance and leadership training experts, as well as seasoned board members, to show you how to best bring new board members up to speed.

Shifts in the sector

Changes in governance regulations and philosophy have altered the role of boards of directors. The Voluntary Sector Roundtable of the late 1990s helped the nonprofit sector recognize that it needed to follow other sectors in developing capacity in leadership, observes Henriette Thompson, former director of public witness for social and ecological justice for the Anglican Church of Canada who has spent 18 years serving on national boards of directors. Out of the Roundtable came the development of various education programs aimed at building the capacity of the sector and its leadership.

More recently, the federal government as well as many provinces and territories have created (or are in the process of creating) separate nonprofit incorporation acts, acts that include regulations that have an impact on the governance of nonprofits, says Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada.

“Board membership today is a major commitment — far bigger than it used to be — and that’s why people sit on fewer boards now,” says Garthson. Some of this may be because, as Speevak observes, boards have decreased in size, as positions such as second vice president have been eliminated and succession models are less clear. The US-based study Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices found the average board size has dropped by more than 20 percent in the last two decades. The study notes that, “As nonprofit boards become smaller, the impact of each board member grows.”

Smaller boards often work more efficiently, Speevak says, but it becomes harder to reflect all stakeholders and the diversity of an organization’s communities. This is something boards hold in tension — the old approach of recruiting a lawyer, an accountant and a human resources professional to boards has been succeeded by an ethos that seeks a blend of professional expertise, personal connection with the cause of the organization and a reflection of the cultural diversity of the community and country.

Finally, advances in technology have shifted the ways boards of directors are able to meet and even vote so that geographic barriers and the cost of travel are significantly reduced.

Bringing new members on board

A new board member requires three different layers of orientation: the generic legal requirements of any board member of any Canadian nonprofit; training and education about the specific organization (its governance model, kind of board and expectations for its members); and, the current situations the board and organization is dealing with (issues, trends, staff, economy, budget, etc).

All three of these layers are necessary to help a board member understand what it means to be a good member, as well as what their roles and responsibilities will be at this particular time, says Sutherns.

Resources for the first layer of orientation can be found in the final section of this article below.

Who orients whom?

Perhaps the biggest gap in orientation, says Garthson, occurs when a board leaves new board member orientation to the executive director. Sutherns agrees although she notes that good staff support strengthens boards, and that investing in staff time for this purpose is very useful. Orientation of new board members is the responsibility of the board of directors, and, Garthson says, ideally is led by a governance committee, rather than simply by the board chair. The Council for Nonprofits agrees with this approach, saying that “Inviting fellow board lead relevant portions of the orientation offers another way for newbies to get to know their colleagues on the board as well as the roles they play individually.” They add, “Inviting all veteran board members to attend each board orientation gives those board members who missed their own orientation – or would like a refresher – to get caught up, and also reinforces a culture of continuous learning.”

One of the risks of orientation is that the existing board simply tells new members “how we do things”. Garthson reminds boards that “diversity isn’t a matter of bringing in someone different and telling them to be like the majority – everyone has to change.” Speevak encourages organizations to look at orientation as a two-way process: “You help the new person learn about the organization and people, but you also allow the new person to teach you from their experience and viewpoint. Bringing in new people is a chance for a board to be transformed.”

Another risk is that board members stop being able to see the forest for the trees. “A lot of orientations focus on ‘here’s what we do, our programs, our services’ — but to what end?” asks Garthson. “Board members need to make decisions based on the outcomes for community are we trying to serve.” She advises introducing new board members to external stakeholders and partners as well as internal volunteers and staff.

Where and how to start

Orientation starts long before a new member begins his or her term. Garthson says that much of the information often given to board members when they start a term should actually be included in a candidate package that helps a prospective board member decide whether s/he should join the board. Other than confidential documents, sharing expectations before a candidate accepts a board position is a way to ensure a good fit. Some organizations invite prospective board members to sit in on at least part of a board meeting, while many introduce potential board members to meet with both the board chair and executive director.

Most organizations have traditionally relied on a “board binder” that includes all the necessary governance documents a new board member will need. Although today such documents are often kept online or electronically, these are still foundational to the orientation of new board members. Sutherns says boards need to regularly discuss whether their board binder documents are up to date.

When orienting a board member, Speevak encourages organizations to make use of different learning styles so that a new member has access to written material, opportunities to talk about the material (i.e. engaging in scenarios), access to resource people on various topics, and formal training. Sutherns reminds boards, “There’s a limit to what people can absorb in a single session and some information won’t really resonate with new board members until they have been in a board meeting.” She advises orientation should actually take place over days and weeks, rather than in one marathon session, and that it can be part of the ongoing board education program.

Essential board orientation checklist

Regardless of the format in which a board orients its new members, the following are essential to include in an effective board orientation:

  • Organization’s mission, history and goals
  • Job description of the board member and how the board member will be expected to advance the organization’s goals
  • Board member agreement
  • Conflict of interest policy, whistleblower policy, liability policy, and other governance policies
  • Personnel and travel policies
  • Calendar for upcoming year
  • Organizational chart and position descriptions
  • Description of various board committees and board structure
  • Biographies of board members and executive director — as well as how long they have been in current roles
  • Annual report, audited financial statement, bylaws, incorporation documents, strategic plan, newsletter, brochures
  • Performance measures used for board and members — processes around accountability (i.e. self-assessment or peer assessment)
  • How decisions are made, what consensus looks like on board
  • Board development budget and plan
  • How board meetings are scheduled. How a board member sends notice if unable to attend meeting
  • Emergency response plan
  • How board members should pass along volunteer or donor prospects
  • Who to ask questions to on various topics

For additional information about the items on this checklist, visit BoardSource, CharityVillage and the Council of Nonprofits.

More than nuts and bolts

Beyond the checklist above, board orientation also involves an orientation to the organization's culture. “When you think about board orientation, it’s also important to give someone a flavour of the culture so they can figure out whether this is a good match or what they need to be comfortable,” says Speevak.

“There are things that are never written down – how people dress for meetings, when is it okay to socialize, how long meetings typically last,” says Garthson. This is where many boards use a buddy system where a more experienced board member is paired up with a new member as a kind of mentor.

A good board mentor should share information that helps a new board member know the lay of the land, have effective discussions and make good decisions, says Garthson.

“Those folks who have a mentor who checks in with them, especially during the first six months, helps them get ready for their first board meeting, and sits next to them at board meetings usually get better would be amazed at the difference it makes in getting a new member functioning,” says Terry Stone, executive director at CenterLink.

Orientation resources

Across Canada, nonprofit organizations rely on a wide variety of sources for all levels of board orientation. The varieties of training also varies widely in terms of cost. It can include everything from consultants who offer governance and organization-specific training, and academic programs to online resources. Here are some options we found:

Volunteer Manitoba, like many volunteer centres and United Way agencies across the country, offers governance training to help potential or existing board members understand the legal requirements of any board member of any Canadian nonprofit as well as understanding of governance models and board types. In 2015, Volunteer Manitoba piloted a program called Board Connect that matched emerging leaders who had taken their governance training with non-profit boards seeking members. The program is expanding in 2016.

Volunteer Canada and Imagine Canada will release a board kit in October 2016 that aligns with Imagine Canada’s Standards Program, helping organizations comply with current legislation and best practices.

The Maytree Foundation, together with CharityVillage, offers a two-hour online course that can be taken at a learner’s own pace.

A wide variety of online resources are available, many at no charge:

DiverseCity offers governance training and a matching program/database for people of colour and minorities to allow full inclusion rather than token representation.

“Once you get on a board,” says Thompson, “the governance side is already such a huge challenge that there is a tendency to downplay board development but if you don’t, you can’t do the other work well. Orienting, training and development of boards is an ongoing imperative.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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