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Orientation and Training of Board Members

Critical Board Building Challenge: How do board members acquire the skills and knowledge they need to be effective leaders and decision-makers?

Introduction

Providing new board members with the information they need to perform effectively is the next critical step in developing a strong Board of Directors.  The responsibility for developing and implementing an effective program of board orientation is shared between the executive director and the board itself.  There must be a commitment to developing a well-informed board, one with the knowledge needed to lead an effective organization. Within the board, the responsibility can be delegated to the Board Development Committee.  The Board Development Committee, working closely with the board chair and the staff director should plan a formal program of board orientation for new members.  The elements of this formal program are described in more detail in this article. 

In addition to this new board member orientation, the Board Development Committee will also be responsible for planning an annual and ongoing board education and training program for all of the board.  The Board Development Committee should also plan more specialized training and development activities to strengthen the leadership skills of board members who are being groomed for other leadership positions within the board. Strategies and program ideas for this ongoing training are also included in this article.

This orientation process has already begun during the board recruitment and nominations phase. Throughout the orientation process, a written board manual will be an indispensable resource.   Look in the Tools Section of this article for sample table of contents of a board manual.

Before we get into some of the details, a word about the content and the timing of board orientation. In order for it to have maximum value and impact, training and orientation must be provided in a timely manner.  The problem for many organizations is that it can sometimes take new board members several months and even a full year before they begin to function effectively in their role as board members.  In order to speed up the learning curve, some boards are beginning to deliver board orientation on a "just-in-time" basis. Information, that in the past, that might not have been provided to a board member until they were on the board, is now being provided earlier as part of the recruitment process. New board members receive an advance program of orientation training to prepare them to eventually hit the ground running.

Here's how such a board orientation program might work: even before a prospective board member is voted on to the board, he or she will receive detailed information about the organization, the workings of the board, expectations for individual board members, and other vital information.  An effective "just-in-time" board orientation program will also focus on the strategic plan of the organization.  It is critical that prospective board members are familiar with the mission, vision, major goals, and strategies of the organization. After the new board member has been brought onto the board, additional information and training is provided so that, to the greatest extent possible, new board members will be able to actively participate in their first meeting with confidence.  In this way the productivity --- and the sense of personal satisfaction -- of new board members is assured.

Board Orientation Timetable

Now, let's look at the orientation process as it proceeds through the following stages:

During The Recruitment Stage (Before Election Or Appointment To The Board):

As mentioned above, orientation of board members of the organization actually begins early in the recruitment process. In the recruitment stage, by means of printed material mailed to the prospect as well as a face-to-face orientation session, the prospect received an overview of the organization's mission and strategic plan, programs and services, financial data, and other background information.  The prospect also received a list of expectations of board members including number of meetings, committee assignments, length of board term and an idea of the time commitment required.  They might have also received a list of current board members and other key volunteers, as well as a copy of the organization bylaws and the last annual audit.

New Member Orientation (Immediately Upon The Election Or Appointment To The Board):

After the new member has been brought onto the board, either as a result of an election or by appointment by the board itself, the new board member orientation process continues in the following way.

  1. Before the first board meeting, schedule a meeting between the new board member and key individuals in the organization.  Provide a detailed board member manual, which should include bylaws, articles of incorporation, a thorough description of programs and services, the current budget, last audited financial statements, a list of board members and their addresses, lists of committees and any staff assignments, copies of minutes for the previous year and a copy of the organizationís strategic plan.
     

  2. Also during this meeting, discuss with the new member options for committee involvement.  Refer back to the board member job description presented to the new board member during the recruitment process. (See sample board member job descriptions in the Tools Section of the article on recruitment)   In most cases, committee involvement by board members is not an option but rather one of the expectations.  There should be a solid match between the interests, skills and preferences of the individual board member and the requirements and challenges of the committee they join.  There is more discussion of this match in the article on committees.
     

  3. At the new members' first board meeting, introduce them to all current board members and staff.  Consider assigning a mentor board member to work with the new board member at least through the first several months.

Board Orientation Tools


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Revised: September 22, 2014