Congratulations, you have recruited an excellent new board member. She is smart, well connected and committed to your mission.  Do you say to her, “Attend a few board meetings; you will get to know us pretty quickly.” Or do you tell her exactly what you say to your new staff members, “Before you start, you must go through our orientation”?

The best way to show you value your new board member is to give her the tools to do her new job.

A good orientation program will affirm the new director’s decision to join your board and show the board’s desire to incorporate the new director into the discussions and deliberations of the agency’s highest leadership team.

Good board orientations have two goals: to educate directors about the organization and to present to the new directors what will be expected of them.

Board orientations are crucial to getting your new directors on board and fully ready to participate in your leadership team. 

A good orientation should cover four broad topics:

  • how your organization works – both operationally and financially,
  • an introduction to the industry, sector or service area in which your organization operates,
  • the laws that govern your company and the directors who lead it, and
  • how your board works and the expectations it places on every board member. 

Hopefully, your recruitment process has covered many of these topics, and your orientation will build upon this knowledge base. 

Directors often join a board with only a vague idea about what the organization does.  Your agency likely has a good reputation in your community and that positive image will form the basis of much of the new director’s knowledge.  Even a new director who thinks he knows your agency may have a detailed understanding of only one part of your operation. To be effective, a new board member needs to have a pretty good idea of the extent of the services you provide and a rudimentary concept about how those services are organized and delivered.  Providing an orientation on the key operational aspects of your organization is also a great way to introduce your operational leaders to the new board members. 

A financial orientation is also essential so the new directors can understand the key revenue sources, overhead expenditures, and key drivers of profitability.  These financial presentations should also include a walk-through of financial statements and other documents that will be discussed in board meetings.  One caveat: don’t expect your new directors to have a broad command of all the acronyms, abbreviations and technical terms you use in your business daily.  In health care, some organizations give their new directors a sixty-page glossary, but handing that out at orientation is a bit like giving someone a French-English dictionary and then reading to them from Madame Bovary in its original French.

All nonprofits swim in a sea of regulations and laws, and directors have specific legal obligations.  Nonprofit directors are considered fiduciaries and are held to a high standard of ethical performance. They are accountable to numerous regulatory agencies, starting with authorities in the state that incorporated the agency and the Internal Revenue Service that granted it 501(c)3 status.  An orientation for new directors needs to enumerate these obligations and explain to the new directors how they can fulfill these many legal requirements and limit their risk.

Board Chairs ask:    Are there any suitable “off the shelf” orientations for new directors?

Developing a Board Orientation Program will take some work initially, but when complete, it can serve as a template for orienting all future directors.  Unfortunately, much of this work will need to be done in-house.  Any commercially available orientation packet will likely be incomplete, potentially inaccurate and certainly not entirely reflective of your unique organization.

Although no complete orientation is available online, even for a price, there are resources that can be of great assistance.  Many nonprofits belong to state and national associations of similar agencies.  Your associations likely offer several documents that will provide good reference tools for discussing the critical financial aspects of your industry and the prevailing regulatory issues. But be wary of anything that looks like general legal advice. Your agency is governed by the laws of the state in which it was incorporated and will also be subject to the laws of any state in which it operates. So, for any legal question, there can be 51 answers (from 50 states and the District of Columbia), some the same, some different

Getting Answers to the Tough Questions

The orientation should include information on the routine nuts and bolts of board operations – time and duration of meetings, how much the packet will be available in advance of the meeting, including instruction on any software the board uses to distribute material, check attendance or otherwise communicate.   

The final leg of the orientation should be a candid discussion of what is expected of board members.  Is there an attendance requirement?  Besides the board meetings, are there other events where attendance is expected? Does the board have a giving standard?  Are board members expected to help raise money?  How are these requirements enforced?  Presenting these standards in the orientation and having them ina written board policy will ensure that there will be no surprises about these standards in the future.

While there are several steps a board can take to ensure the smooth incorporation of new directors, such as mentoring programs, a comprehensive board orientation for new directors remains the cornerstone of a process whose goal is strengthening and replenishing the agency’s volunteer leadership.