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Onboarding Volunteer Board Directors A Fresh Approach

Onboarding volunteer board directors: A fresh approach


In response to the pandemic, boards and governing bodies of nonprofits and mission-driven organizations were forced to rapidly reimagine how they conduct governance and oversight to continue essential operations. Going online was the only way to continue doing business. But how did new trustee onboarding work during those times, and what lessons can be learned?

In a session at a recent Diligent conference, three industry experts gathered to share their experience, explore board member onboarding, and discuss how technology can be used to bring new trustees “into the fold” ready to contribute.

During the session, panelists also shared best practices for in-person and remote board member onboarding, and talked about how technology can be used for stronger board engagement.

Among the panel of experts were Dr. Anna Everett, PhD, VP of the Board, Santa Barbara City College; Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Assistant to the President & Corporate Secretary, Presbyterian SeniorCare Network; and Megan Allen, CEO of BoardStrong.

Onboarding is an ongoing process

The panelists started by asserting the fact that onboarding should not be just one meeting. Megan said, “We see it [onboarding] as a series of meetings for our new members.”

She pointed out that you need to “acknowledge challenges as well as convey optimism” so that the new member’s initial experience of the organization is a true one. Megan also recommended asking new board members how comfortable they are with reading financial statements when they start, as reading financial statements is such an important part of the board’s fiduciary duties.

Many mission-driven organizations had to move to remote onboarding during COVID-19. Dr. Everett described how, when she joined the board of Santa Barbara City College, her onboarding process took place completely online: from reviewing past information to accessing key board documents, to meeting her fellow board members. Luckily technology, in the form of board management software, was a good support as she learned the ropes. She could browse through a library of documents and past meeting information to get a sense of what had happened in the past.

Megan agreed that “you can put so many resources for [new board members] onto your board software,” while Elizabeth finds that her board solution, BoardEffect, “makes it easy to keep it up to date and maintain it, keeping documents current for new members to access.” She added that, in her experience, volunteer board members were often too busy to do a half- or full-day session, so her organization moved to a more virtual, self-guided onboarding process with six steps, starting with a Welcome email from the board chair.

Here is the Presbyterian SeniorCare onboarding process:

  • CEO welcome email​​
  • Follow-up email with step-by-step instructions and embedded links​​
  • Steps 1-2-3: Getting familiar with BoardEffect​​
  • Step 4 – Onboarding and orientation video in BoardEffect​​
  • Step 5 – Survey in BoardEffect to collect demographic information​​
  • Step 6 –1:1 session and mentor​ pairing

“It was much easier once we moved to BoardEffect. I could load up a narrated PPT using the Library and put all the necessary documents up for the new trustee to view.” — Elizabeth Thompson.

Orientation tools and strategies​

The experts shared some tools and strategies to make initial board member onboarding a better process:

  • Create a welcoming, inclusive, participatory environment.
  • Hold board orientation sessions and make sure to review board manual with new member. ​
  • Schedule one-to-one meeting(s) for the new member with board leadership.  ​
  • Coordinate meetings with key staff ​so that the new board member becomes familiar with “who’s who.”
  • Provide a board mentor or “buddy” ​to support the new board member.
  • Consider options for pre-board service — perhaps there’s something your board member can work on before they join you to familiarize themselves with aspects of your operations.
  • Use committees to engage non-board members so they get to know your organization and you get to know them.
  • Consider electing board members several months before their terms start and enable them to observe board and committee meetings.

At the first board orientation session​

  • Make sure to include all board members if possible, not just new ones. This lets people start to meet each other. This could be done as part of an annual retreat or stand-alone meeting.
  • Include a social aspect to help build relationships. Perhaps it’s coffee before the meeting or an icebreaker.​
  • Convey optimism and enthusiasm about the skills and talents of the new members. Also acknowledge changes, challenges and future opportunities. ​
  • Walk through your board manual, highlighting key aspects of the board job description, bylaws, policies, committee structure, and strategic plan.​

Use your resource and workroom libraries

A top tip from Elizabeth was to make sure key documents are stored in the resource library, accessible to all board members, such as:​

  • Annual reports​
  • Board education presentations​
  • Board policies​
  • Strategic plans​
  • Organizational documents​
  • Onboarding resources – including job descriptions, compliance plans, brochures and articles

She also advised using the Workroom Library for specific board workrooms, where you can store further reference documents by type, such as:​

  • ​Board assessment results​
  • Articles of incorporation​
  • By-laws​
  • Financial statements​
  • Audits​
  • IRS Form 990​

Using your board management software for effective onboarding

Savvy administrators (and new board members) can make use of certain features offered by board management software such as BoardEffect to help make onboarding and ongoing board engagement even more effective.

Here are some of the clever tips that our experts shared:

Tips for Administrators

  • Use the messaging feature to contact all users​.
  • Utilize the homepage for welcome messages and alerts​.
  • Create a news section on the homepage for important information​.
  • Embed important videos or links on the homepage for easy access​.
  • Utilize the Resource and Workroom Libraries to store resource documents and links.
  • Use polls and surveys to conduct board assessments, collect information, gain feedback after meetings, etc.​
  • Keep your directory up-to-date​, so new members can easily find contact details to reach out when needed.
  • Make things as easy as possible for your board members!

Tips for board members

  • Check your board software’s homepage regularly for events, news and messaging.​
  • Check the Resource Library and Workroom Library for any resource documents before calling or searching — it’s probably stored there!​
  • The Directory contains contact information for other board members that you can use to network​, or for assistance.
  • Highlight and make annotations when reviewing the meeting book​.
  • Be sure your device is fully charged if your meeting is in person​.
  • If you cannot bring your device, alert the administrator so they are prepared with a downloaded copy or paper copy of the meetings materials for you​.
  • The board platform is a resource and tool — be sure you are making the most of its features!​

Set your new board members up for success with structured, supportive and streamlined onboarding. Download our one-pager now to find out how to streamline and simplify onboarding for your new board trustees.


Tips for engaging board meetings (virtual or not!)​

Next, the panel discussed strategies for making volunteer board meetings as engaging as possible.

Here are some of their top tips:

  • Develop an annual workplan and meeting schedule.​
  • Disseminate the board agenda, minutes and supporting materials in advance, ​so members have time to prepare.
  • Develop a forward-looking agenda using the 80/20 rule — 80% of your meeting should be discussion, strategy and forward planning. 20% should be reporting.
  • Distinguish between operational and governance discussions, focusing on the latter​.
  • Pose more questions rather than report ​during the board meeting.
  • Ensure strong facilitation and leadership — know what you want to get out of the meeting and stay on track.​
  • Create a “parking lot” or “compost heap” (“parking” an issue for later so your team can focus on the more pressing issues), or delegate to a committee.

All our experts agreed that engaging board members outside of meetings is critical. Here are some of their suggestions:

Find out how new board members can help open doors and steward relationships with funders, donors, clients, government agencies, etc. ​

Ensure all the board and staff leadership know what skills, talents and connections each board member has.

Learn what motivates board members, and how and what they wish to contribute and engage with. ​For example:

    • They may be able to provide professional guidance and advice (but remember they are not your lawyer or CPA!) ​
    • They could be interested in helping with funding proposals, or providing technical or programmatic expertise.
    • They could have skills that will assist with event planning, hosting, fundraising and so on. ​

A board management solution builds shared experience and engagement

Finally, if you are not already using one, consider implementing board management software. It gives new board members easy access to documents and training so they can get up to speed quickly. It’s a central place to message each other and keep track of committee meetings and projects.

As Dr. Everett points out, “[Board software] enables the board to have shared experiences, builds depth of engagement, and we also make use of subcommittees. Technology helps us all be on the same page and allows us to create more structured, guided onboarding process now.”

Elizabeth agrees: “I have received so much positive feedback from new members by making the process self-guided and virtual. One new trustee said, ‘this was the best orientation I ever had.’”

Building shared experiences and engagement is key to a successful volunteer board, as Megan points out: “A strong board is a strong organization.”

BoardEffect is designed with the unique needs of volunteer boards in mind. Our board management software streamlines board processes, enhances communication and promotes accountability, helping you to onboard new members and get them prepared quickly to contribute.

To learn more about how a BoardEffect board management system can serve your mission-driven organization and support your onboarding best practices, request a demo today.

Jill Holtz

Jill is a Content Strategy Manager at Diligent. Her strategy background and content expertise working across a variety of sectors, including education, non-profit and with local government partners, allows her to provide unique insights for organizations looking to achieve modern governance.

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