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Start with new-member orientation to build a more effective board

Establishing "board buddies" and talking more about culture are some ideas to improve onboarding of volunteer leaders 

March 6, 2015
By Lori Sharn

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Most associations provide some sort of orientation for incoming board members, along with a big manual packed with information about the organization and their new responsibilities.

Whether these onboarding programs are accomplishing all that they could or should is another question.

Orientation “is really the linchpin of making sure you’ve got the right people doing the right things on your board,” said Anne Wallestad, CEO of BoardSource, a nonprofit dedicated to good governance.


“It’s less about a specific roadmap of how to do (orientation) and more about an intentional focus, and making sure that every board member understands what the organization needs, and how they can help meet those needs,” Wallestad said.

Certainly board members need to have a good introduction to the organization—from finances to programs to staff—and their role and responsibilities. Effective boards also need opportunities to learn more about each other and their own group dynamics, and the context for making decisions.

Hildy Gottlieb, author of “Board Recruitment and Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide,” said many onboarding programs are more focused at the operational level than the leadership level. As a result, she said, board members don’t learn how to be leaders: “We teach them how to be immensely mindful of all the means, but not the ends … We never teach them how to bring out the best in the organization.”

One big problem, Gottlieb said, is that boards often take “zero time” to get to know each other as people. Trade groups are so business-focused, board members just want to get down to business, rather than taking any time for talking about why they want to serve on the board or what brought them to the profession. These relationships will help board members resolve problems and avoid dysfunction, she said.

“When things go wrong, it’s never about a thing. It’s always about the people,” Gottlieb said.

Wallestad and Gottlieb offered some tips on improving onboarding of new board members:

—Onboarding actually starts when new board members are recruited, said Wallestad. Make sure the recruits understand what they are signing up for, and how much time and effort it will actually take, so there are no surprises.

—Have existing board members talk to newcomers about their experiences, the culture of the group and how decisions are made, and what they wish they had known when starting on the board. “Provide some flavor and texture beyond what you could read in a board manual,” Wallestad said. “Understanding the group dynamics as they are coming in is really very helpful.”

—Consider a board mentor or board “buddy” program, which matches each newcomer with an experienced board member, who can answer questions and help provide more context about the board.

—Schedule time for board members to get to know each other at a more personal level. Gottlieb said going around a table and asking everyone the same question can produce connections among board members. Her favorite questions include: What is your path in life that led you to care so much that you want to be on the board? What led you to this profession?

—Ask current board members what information they felt they missed at orientation, and what information they still feel they are lacking, Gottlieb said.

—Put the documents and information that board members need online, rather than producing thick binders, said Gottlieb, who refers to such board manuals as “boat anchors.” Blog software makes it easy to post and search information, and access can be protected with passwords, she said.

—Incorporate continuing education into board activities, and provide opportunities for personal interaction long after orientation.