Some board members attend their first board meeting knowing pretty much what to expect. Even experienced board directors benefit by having the opportunity to attend a well-prepared, well-organized board orientation session. A board orientation is even more important for inexperienced board directors. The more information they have before getting involved, the more they will be able to contribute to the organization.
A mistake that many boards make is not investing enough time in preparing for and planning a good board orientation session. The reason is often not having enough time. But not having enough time is more of an excuse than a reason, because boards will always make time for things they consider to be a priority.
A board orientation process is central to giving board directors information, context and perspective so they don’t have to pick things up as they go.
A Good Board Orientation Process Provides Great Value
All board directors need to be as well informed about how the organization operates as possible. They need to understand as much as possible about their intended role on the board. Much of what they need to learn in the beginning pertains to the roles of board officers, other board directors and senior managers.
A good board orientation will leave new board directors feeling like they can’t wait to share the news with family and friends. They’ll want to boast about the organization and its key accomplishments. They’ll feel valued and appreciated and be impressed at joining such a professional organization. As they enter their first board meeting, they’ll be ready to make a contribution from the first day. Board directors who feel well-prepared for their new duties and responsibilities will be your most engaged and productive board members, and quite possibly your future leaders.
Board Orientation Materials
Prepare a binder of materials for each board director to take home, review, read and take notes on before the board orientation meeting. This will give them time to gather up some questions and be prepared to get answers at the board orientation.
The first few pages in a board orientation should include information about the history of the organization. Keep it short, relevant and inspirational. The binder should also include a staff organizational chart, so they can get a glimpse of operations. Another nice addition is to include program highlights, accomplishments and successes. This is a good place to drop in information about current and future initiatives.
Board members need to know and understand their duties and responsibilities. This section should include information on fiduciary duties, committee participation, board meeting attendance, board meeting preparation and other pertinent information.
The board should prepare a roster that lists current board officers and directors, along with their contact information. It’s nice to provide photos and short bios as well.
Most boards require all board directors to serve on at least one committee. Prepare a list of committees and what they do, as well as the board members who serve on each one.
Prepare a list of upcoming meetings. The sooner board directors have this, the sooner they can get the dates on their calendars. Also, add a sheet that lists upcoming events and other meetings, so they can plan for them as well.
Provide new board directors with a copy of the current strategic plan, the executive summary, and a copy of the vision and mission statements. Add financial documents such as the approved budget, and most recent financial documents and reports. The audited financial statement is of the utmost importance, as it reflects the financial stability of the organization based on the perspective of a third-party financial expert.
New board members will need a copy of the organization’s bylaws, including any amendments and governance policies. It’s also helpful for new board directors to have a copy of the board meeting minutes for the last few meetings. Also include the agenda for the next, upcoming board meeting.
Nonprofit organizations will want to spend much of their time explaining how they approach fundraising, as that is a primary activity. A fundraising one-pager should depict the regular fundraising activities, which should inspire them to get involved quickly. At this point in the orientation, it’s a good time to point out that board members are expected to give of themselves and give of their wallets to the cause.
The Board Orientation Session
The board orientation materials provide the meat and bones of a board orientation. The orientation is also a good opportunity for new board directors to meet those they’ll be working closely with in person. The board chair, executive director, nominating and governance committee chair, and development person, if you have one, should all be in attendance and take a small part in presenting the program.
Every meeting should have an agenda that includes a board orientation meeting. Orientation usually starts by giving introductions so that new board directors can connect names and faces. This is a valuable opportunity to learn who does what and what each of them brings to the table.
After introductions have been given, many orientation organizers like to show an inspirational video of the organization, including information about the past, present and future. The executive director or CEO expounds on the video with a talk about the organization’s mission, vision and strategic plans.
Because the new board directors were given a board member orientation handbook right away, they’re bound to bring some questions to the board orientations, so it’s best to allow time in the agenda for these tasks.
For nonprofit organizations, it’s beneficial to have the fundraising committee chair give a brief talk to inspire participation in fundraising. The board chair may present a brief overview of the upcoming board agenda and the most significant issues they plan to discuss. The only thing left at this point is to schedule a date for the orientation and confirm that all necessary parties can attend.
If your organization uses a board management software program like BoardEffect (and they’d certainly benefit by doing so), the orientation is a good time to begin training on the system. You can always add more sessions later on if they need help accessing certain areas of the portal. Overall, a board orientation should offer a customized experience, and it should be one that places new board directors at the starting gate and ready to run.