How a Board Secretary Should Help Onboard a New Nonprofit Board Member

When you don’t know who to ask—ask the board secretary. Board secretaries tend to be the “go to” people who can either help you directly or tell you where to get the information you need. Board secretaries are the best “go to” people to help onboard a new nonprofit board member and answer all their questions.

Board secretaries should develop a process for welcoming new board members into the fold. The process can be a formal orientation, complete with widescreen videos, slide show graphics, and officer presentations, but it doesn’t have to be that fancy. It could just be an informal meeting in someone’s home. The important thing is just to do it.

The nominating and recruitment process is actually where onboarding starts. Once an individual gets elected to the board, it’s time for a proper orientation. New board members are typically eager to learn more about the organization they’re serving. A thorough onboarding gives them some good, basic information so they can get off the ground running.

Conducting a designated onboarding process may seem a little daunting in the beginning, but once the secretary conducts it a few times, the process will go more smoothly. The payoff for the organization is that new board members will deepen their commitments to the cause and become strong advocates for its mission.

Getting Acquainted with the Organization and the Members Who Run It

Board secretaries should do their best to create a space that is welcoming and inviting for orientation.

When onboarding more than one director, it’s a good idea to provide tent cards, name tags, or both, so that new board members won’t have to try to remember all the names right away. A good way to begin the onboarding process is to provide a short biography of the current board members, key staff, committees, committee members and committee chairs. New board members will appreciate a nice printout of the biographies with a small photo of the other organizational leaders.

The executive director or CEO usually gives a short presentation for a formal onboarding event. Other officers may attend and give a short briefing of their duties and responsibilities to further acquaint new board members with their roles. Some nonprofits enjoy putting on a formal swearing-in ceremony as a tradition.

This is also a good time to inform new directors on how to find the organization’s social media platforms and any policies involving them.

Wrap up the onboarding with a tour of the facilities

The onboarding time is not just for the purpose of giving new members information about the organization. It’s also a time for the board secretary to learn more about the new board director and where they hope to serve the organization. This discussion may lead to the board secretary assigning another individual to serve as a mentor for the new member.

Providing an Overview of the Board Handbook

The board handbook serves two purposes. It serves as the initial introduction to the articles of incorporation, bylaws and other documents. It also serves as reference material for when questions arise during board meetings.

The board handbook can take several forms. It can take the form of a nicely organized binder with tabs for the various sections. Many nonprofits are finding that paper binders are too cumbersome and difficult to update and prefer electronic data. It’s appropriate, if not preferred, to provide electronic copies of the board handbook or provide intranet access. It’s important to keep board handbooks up-to-date with all pertinent information regardless of the handbook’s format. The board secretary usually takes responsibility for updates.

The board handbook typically begins with basic information like the organization’s history, mission, and statement of values. It should also include the articles of incorporation, bylaws, IRS certificate, and tax-exempt letter. It will also include other important documents that the board member may need from time to time during board member service.

Reviewing Legal Duties, Policies, and Expectations

Becoming a board member of a nonprofit organization is an exciting venture, especially when serving for the first time. It promises to be a rewarding experience, and it can be a lot of fun. When providing a review of the business end of being a board member, the board secretary should emphasize that being a board member is more than a figurehead. Directorship carries many responsibilities with it.

First, the new member should receive a written copy of the job description and responsibilities. Fiduciary duties are the most important responsibilities, so the board secretary should be sure to explain what they are, and what they mean including:

  1. Duty of Loyalty-to act in good faith to the organization
  2. Duty of Care-to carry out duties as an ordinary prudent person would
  3. Duty of Obedience-to operate the organization according to the law

New board members should understand that failure to fulfil their fiduciary duties may cause them or the organization to be liable.

The onboarding process can be overwhelming in the beginning. The board secretary should offer up copies of some helpful documents with an offer to review them again at a later date. These documents may include:

  • Board review of executive director/CEO compensation
  • Summary of Director & Officer or other insurance
  • Whistleblower policy
  • Conflict of interest policy
  • Travel reimbursement policy
  • Other important policies
  • Calendar of events

The board secretary may opt to include these documents under a tab in the board handbook for reference as needed.

Helpful Aids and Tips for Meeting Preparation

The new board member will spend most of his or her volunteer time in board meetings. Most new directors will appreciate a few tips on how to plan and prepare for a board meeting.

First, they will need a calendar of meetings that includes the location place and time. Provide a copy of the recent financial reports, audited financials, and reports on donor activity. Include a copy of the last couple of agendas. Do a quick review and ask if they have any questions. Remind them that they will be responsible for reviewing these reports, asking questions for clarification, and using them to help their fellow board members with strategic planning.

It also helps to give them a quick run-down about what board meetings are really like, so they know what to expect.

Final Thoughts About Onboarding New Board Members

New board members may be anxious about their new responsibilities. A smooth onboarding process will help new board members to take on their new responsibilities with confidence. Fellow board members shouldn’t expect them to remember everything; board experience takes time. New members should leave their orientation knowing that this is just the beginning of their training and that the entire board will be engaging in board development.