How to Onboard a First-Time Nonprofit Board Director vs. a Seasoned Board Director
People become involved in nonprofit organizations because they believe in the organization’s cause. Often, they’ve had a deep or moving personal connection to the cause or the population that the nonprofit organization serves. Nominating or governance committees work diligently to fill a vacancy in the directorship of a nonprofit board. The search for a new director will likely include candidates with some type of board director experience. A thorough search for a board director may very well include individuals who have skills, talents, abilities and similar job experience in the corporate world—individuals who, with a little training, could do a stellar job in the role of board director.
Onboarding a board director is much different than going through a rote hiring and orientation process. In the corporate arena, onboarding is a highly customized protocol that offers new directors the tools, resources and knowledge for them to be successful and productive. The nonprofit world is learning that this is a healthy approach to onboarding their new board directors as well. This approach may look different depending on whether the new board director has past experience in the role or it’s the person’s first board seat.
First-Time Nonprofit Board Directors Go in With Mindset of Excitement
Individuals who accept their first position as a board director for a nonprofit organization are sure to feel a sense of excitement and pride. Being selected to represent and lead a fine charitable establishment is a prestigious opportunity, regardless of the nonprofit’s size.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever. The excitement wears off, and the real work must soon begin. As unfamiliar responsibilities pile on, it’s easy for first-time board directors to become overwhelmed. Fear of failure and letting others down begins to set in. For some, the stress can lead to panic, anxiety or insomnia, debilitating them further. The board may be wondering how this happened since they did such a thorough job of appointing a director and completing a thorough orientation process.
Remember that onboarding is customized and long term. The best scenario is for the board to help the new board director to form a plan to identify their strengths and weaknesses, as well as leadership development opportunities. The sooner they get started, the better. While board directors are the primary people to identify areas that they need to develop, their peers should support them and encourage them to start early. As new board directors work to increase their levels of competency, they will be learning more about the organization’s work. New board directors should align their development with the organization’s goals.
Seasoned Board Directors Go in With the Mindset of Getting to Work
Board directors with board experience who have a past relationship with a nonprofit organization probably already have somewhat of an idea about what the rest of the board expects. They may even hold seats on other corporate or nonprofit boards. Seasoned board directors usually bypass the honeymoon phase—they can get up to speed in the boardroom fairly quickly. Much of the board’s work will already be familiar to them, so many of the fears and pressures are diminished or nonexistent.
Seasoned board directors are likely to feel less pressure than rookie board directors, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have areas where they need to improve. Like inexperienced board directors, their onboarding should also be customized and viewed for the long term, with special emphasis on the first 12 months of service.
Long-Term Self-Led Onboarding Works Well for All Board Directors
Experienced or not, no one knows better what new board directors need than themselves. The only difference between new and seasoned board directors is that they will have a different knowledge base of the nonprofit’s business. They will also have different skills, talents and abilities. In addition, they will likely have different business and personal networks.
Board director evaluations are the primary tool for board directors with all experience levels to identify areas where they can gain a stronger skill set so they can enhance the work of the board.
All board directors should set up a 12-month plan for training and workshop opportunities and stick with it. It may be helpful to do a check-in for progress at the six-month mark. Getting feedback from other board members is an important part of the evaluation process. Seeking to improve oneself is something that’s good to include in the organizational culture.
Board directors and key staff or volunteers are valuable resources to help new directors find training opportunities, workshops and mentors to fill their gaps or weaknesses in skills.
Board directors should share their plans for development with their fellow board members to help keep each other accountable.
Board Support After Orientation and During Onboarding
The nominating, selection or governance committee that offers up the nominees for board director election often breathes a sigh of relief after board elections are over. They feel a sense of reward and like they can relax a bit. However, even if they have a formal orientation, one or more board members need to keep a pulse on the development of the newest board members. Each new board director should know whom to contact if they have questions or concerns.
The other board directors should introduce first-time and seasoned board directors to key staff, volunteers, donors, funders and other key leaders in the community. It also helps to assign each of them to a committee or volunteer event early on in the process. Getting involved is a good way to deepen a board member’s commitment and get them excited about the organization’s cause.
Wrapping Up the Similarities and Differences of Onboarding New and Seasoned Directors
The orientation process is an important one—one that takes place shortly after an individual accepts a board seat. By no means should orientation take the place of the onboarding process for either new or seasoned directors. Board directors need to place a heavy focus on onboarding for the first 12 months, and it should be ongoing after that. Director self-evaluations are a valuable tool to help identify board director gaps and weaknesses. Board support is important to help alleviate the initial stress for new board members and increase the likelihood of success for all board members.