Nonprofit Board Member Onboarding: 12 Things to Cover

Board Development

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Matt Hugg, President and Founder, Nonprofit.Courses – He’s the author of the Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and teaches nonprofit management at several universities, via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe. Matt’s past work includes fundraising for the University of the Arts, Ursinus College, University of Cincinnati and the Boy Scouts of America. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

New board members are valuable resources. They bring a fresh perspective to your organization. They bring energy. They could also bring their own agenda. Whether you call it onboarding or a board orientation, it’s essential that you start them out right.  

For the sake of brevity, let’s say that you did everything we covered in our first article, “10 Tips for Onboarding All Types of Volunteers.”  If so, that’s a great start. As you might expect with board members, there’s a lot more to cover. You might want to break up your onboarding process into several sessions. In addition, you may find it helpful to use the Nonprofit.Courses’ guide to nonprofit board training as a resource to further improve your onboarding work. Let’s begin.  

Your Mission 

We’ll only briefly touch on your mission here because it should have been covered earlier. However, by virtue of their position, new board members should be given the deep dive into your mission. Most are coming to you as well-intended laypeople, not experts. They don’t need to become experts. That’s why you have staff. Yet the public will expect knowledge, and their decision-making ability is enhanced if they have a significant working knowledge of your mission’s discipline. That level of knowledge builds over time with ongoing training at board meetings, through tours, at events, and by other means. 

Smile! 

It’s very important that your volunteers know that you’re happy they’re taking time out of their busy schedules to help your organization achieve its mission. If the person assigned to welcome your new volunteers isn’t the one who enlisted them—and doesn’t seem pleased about being there—that’s a huge deterrent to folks who are willing to help out without being paid to do so. Treat your volunteers like VIPs!  

Board Members’ Purpose   

After your mission, maybe the best place to start with any new board member is to clarify why they’re on the board and how they got there. Clarify how you got their name. Was it someone in their network? Did you scan a list of community notables? Did they put themselves forward?  

While you’re discussing “why are you here,” discuss what skills they are expected to bring to the board. These may be professional skills, a deep interest in your mission, personal or professional connections, or some combination of these. Let’s be honest, the ability to bring resources to your nonprofit could be a reason too—whether those are financial, political, or goods and services. Discuss that too. 

Also, don’t ignore demographics. This can be a prickly subject. If the person in front of you represents a particular ethnic group, age, or geographic area that you want to build into, say it. It’s probably obvious already. Talk about their membership in that context, and how you can both help your nonprofit make progress in that area.  

Before you end the “why you’re here” discussion, learn what your new board member wants out of the relationship. Ideally, they have a deep interest in your mission and are ready to pitch in their time, talent, and treasure. But that’s not always what brings them to you. It may be that they owe a favor to whoever recruited them. Maybe their business values community service, and your nonprofit looked like a better choice than their other options (You see this sometimes with accountants and lawyers who are heading toward or who have just become a partner in their firm.). It could be that you have a prestigious board, and they want to be seen with the “in” crowd. Whatever it is, finding out is important for you to satisfy their needs, leading to a longer-term relationship and their enthusiastic advocacy for your cause. 

Want to dig deeper into a board member’s purpose? Check out Boardable’s guide to nonprofit board member responsibilities for more information.

What’s a Nonprofit? 

Before you get too far, it’s important to clarify what a nonprofit is. Yes, it’s basic, but too many board members, especially those with deep business backgrounds, just think of nonprofits as “businesses who take charitable gifts.”  

The key points to cover include: 

  • Nonprofits are mission driven whereas businesses are profit driven. 
  • Nonprofits are wholly independent. They are responsible to the community, and as such, the attorney general of your state has standing in all matters.   
  • Nonprofits have two customers – the people they serve through the mission and the people or organizations which pay for all or part of the services, such as donors, insurance companies, government entities, and more. In business, the customer and the payer are the same entity.  

There are more, but these three distinctions can give the new board member some context on why you take certain actions. For example, the board member may question why you maintain a particular program that loses money. The answer is that it meets your mission, and that your job is to find a third party to support the much-needed program. 

Everyone’s Roles  

It’s essential that your board members know everyone’s place in your nonprofit. In short, the board’s duty is to deal with the policies and the “big issues.”  Think strategic, 3,000-foot view. The staff, as led by the executive director (president, CEO…) implements that policy: the tactical three-foot view. Program volunteers will also have policy implementation duties. The board chair and the executive director are the interface between the board and the staff. This is not to exclude anyone from talking to each other. It just helps the board and the staff do their respective jobs.  

It’s important to point out board members are not the bosses of the staff. That’s the executive director’s role. This comes up because the staff may feel an implied obligation to do what a board member says due to their positional authority, even if it is against the direction set forth by their supervisor. If there are any issues, the board member needs to bring them up with the board chair, who can discuss it with the executive director. 

Finances 

Consider having a separate session to discuss your organization’s finances. Bring your CFO and/or board treasurer into the conversation too. Most board members are not financial experts, and many do not know how to read properly prepared financial reports. Be prepared for your new board member to hide their lack of knowledge in this area. Do your best to make this an educational opportunity for your own finances and nonprofit finance in general. 

The finance discussion could be your most important ever in your new board member training. The public is hyper-aware of nonprofit financial missteps. Every board member should be satisfied with what they read. They may not like what the numbers say, but they should understand what the numbers mean. If not, they should have no hesitation in asking questions until they grasp the issues. 

Funding  

Part of every board member’s responsibility is to make sure that their nonprofit is properly funded to carry out its mission. This starts with making their own charitable gift. This should be no surprise to the new board member. The topic should have been covered when they were recruited. Whether you have a specific board giving amount, a “give or get” policy, or simply let each board member give what they feel is appropriate, every board member must give. Giving increases their personal commitment, and tells others, especially other funders like foundations, that each board member is committed to their cause.  

But funding goes beyond their own gift. Each nonprofit board member should help identify and solicit revenue as part of the nonprofit’s fundraising strategy. That may or may not be making a charitable gift solicitation. It could be lobbying for funds from a government source, helping secure a contract with a client who will pay for your nonprofit’s services, or playing a major role in an event or product sales program. Whatever it is, your new board member needs to understand that building revenue is part of their role. 

Legal Issues 

It’s important for every new board member to feel the weight of their legal responsibilities in their role. This isn’t meant to scare them. It’s meant for them to take the reports they see, the minutes they review, and the documents they sign very seriously. You should introduce them to any policy documents, such as conflict of interest policies. Whether you review your nonprofit’s Form 990 with them now or when discussing finance is up to you, but they should be aware of its existence, importance, and public nature. This is also a good time to discuss liability issues and your board liability insurance (which you have, of course.) Also, now is the time to address any pending litigation your new board member may be asked to vote upon.

Advocacy

Being an advocate for your mission and the general cause of your nonprofit (such as your mission to take care of a park, and public parks as a whole) is a major board member responsibility. Everyone your new board member knows should be aware of their commitment. Your new board member can show their advocacy by showing up at your events, speaking at community groups, providing statements for press releases, and posting on social media – all in coordination with your nonprofit’s advocacy/marketing plans. Find out where their skills are in this area and use them! 

Board Evaluations  

Best practices tell us that a nonprofit board evaluates itself and its members on an ongoing basis. If you do this, you should make your new board member aware of how it’s done and what measures result in a board member’s positive review.  

Board Procedures  

If your organization has any unique procedures or traditions, make your new board member aware of them before their first meeting. This may include attendance requirements, seating arrangements, voting processes, or more. If they’re not already familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order, you can provide them with a great introduction here. Stress that they must come to your board meeting prepared – which means having read all the material you provide. If you have a board portal or cloud storage system (Google Drive, Dropbox, iDrive, etc.) now is the time to give them access.  

The Importance of Teamwork 

This is also a good time to emphasize that board work is teamwork. Being on a board is not a solo venture. It’s important that each member communicates with their colleagues, and particularly the board chair, on any matters involving your nonprofit, big or small. Admit the organization’s shortcomings and resolve to improve. Their job is not to whitewash problems or hide inconveniences or embarrassments. It’s to contribute to the solution of organizational issues by either contributing your time or talents under the coordination of the board chair and executive director. 

Be open to further education and training. For many people, the more they learn about something that interests them, the more they enjoy it. With this in mind, ask your new board member to be curious about your mission and procedures and learn more about them using various internal and external resources. If they think they know the topic, that’s okay. Encourage them to not reject training, but to help others with it. And especially, ask that they don’t hide if they don’t know a topic. Others probably don’t either. No embarrassment. 

Maybe The Most Important Point – Encourage Engagement! 

If your new board member remembers nothing else, ask them to please NEVER be accused of “sleeping at the switch.” Emphasize that being a rubber stamp on the agenda is not their job.  Question and challenge, not needlessly, but appropriately, so that your new board member, and everyone in the room, is clear about the decisions they make and the reports they read and hear. It’s only then that their duty as a nonprofit board member is fully satisfied. 

Seeing new, well-informed, and enthusiastic members join a board lifts everyone’s spirits. It gives an organization hope and confidence in their future. While by no means exhaustive, covering the points above will launch any new board member into what could be the best experience of their volunteer life, and move your mission in ways you never imagined! 


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