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How to Effectively Onboard New Board Members
Serving on an association’s board of directors can be overwhelming for those who are not adequately prepared. Beyond the gravity of making decisions that could impact an entire profession or industry, board members play a specific, complex role within an association. The truth is, many volunteers become board members without knowing exactly what to expect, which may be due in part to the lack of proper orientation.

A recent survey by Heidrick & Struggles discovered that for many associations the new board member onboarding process is lacking. The study found that 45 percent of board members surveyed said their organization didn’t have a “defined onboarding process,” and just 46 percent say their onboarding experience properly prepared them to be an effective board member. Further, it found that 35 percent did not meet with senior leadership before joining and almost 40 percent weren’t told how the board itself makes decisions. When new board members aren’t properly acquainted with their new role, it can hamper both their individual effectiveness and the productivity of the board overall. BoardSource’s 2017 Leading With Intent survey found that boards that orient and educate new members about the work of the board function at a much higher level than those that do not.

A Multi-Layered Approach

Board orientation processes should be multi-layered, starting with an introductory phone call from the executive director and board chair to welcome the new member to the board. Shortly thereafter, a best practice that many associations employ is to hold an informational webinar for new board members.

The webinar — typically held with the executive director, board chair, and others — covers the essential issues that new board members need to know. That includes the expectations of the role, the legal responsibility of the board, the culture of the organization, governance structure, financial responsibilities, risk management, ethics and values, bylaws, and decision-making processes, among other things. “A big piece of that is discussing how the board participates in meetings and how it arrives at decisions,” said Kristin Tamkus, executive director of the American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants (AALNC), which promotes the professional advancement of registered nurses consulting within the legal arena. While healthy debate and conflict is welcomed on a high-functioning board, new board members should know that the goal is to work toward consensus. Even if someone initially disagrees, it’s critical that they ultimately support the decision of the board.

In addition, the webinar provides information and background about the mission, vision, culture statement, strategic plan, financial plan, and other important association documents, explained Meghan Carey, executive director of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), which promotes the professional interests of genetic counselors. Also, be mindful that content may change from year-to-year based on the needs of the incoming board members. For example, NSGC had received a lot of legal questions during its webinar, so the association’s attorney was invited to participate in a board meeting, and her input was incorporated in the next year’s webinar.

Tamkus said it’s also important to include an overview of all the staff members, their roles, and who is accountable for what. “New members are often surprised at how integral the staff is for the association and how important a partnership with staff is to getting work done,” Tamkus said. Further, communication protocols with staff should be detailed to let board members know who to contact or if all communications should funnel through one person. “We emphasize the importance of the relationship between management and board,” Tamkus said.

Observe Board Meetings

A recommended second layer of the orientation process is to invite incoming board members to attend the annual meeting and sit in on a board meeting before their term begins. They are only there to observe, not participate, but it has proven to be an invaluable experience, Carey said. It helps incoming board members gain insight into how a meeting is run, the issues being discussed, and group dynamics, and it also allows them to build relationships with their new colleagues.

Sometime after that meeting, the new board members might also convene for a second orientation gathering. This time it is in-person with other board members and key staff. The session may cover some of the same information discussed at the webinar as well as any questions that might come up. Carey’s board also takes time to review with the new members the current issues the board is dealing with to get them up to speed, as well as once again go over key documents, how the board reaches consensus, and other matters.

It’s also important to allot time for new board members to socialize with their colleagues. Carey organizes an informal mixer for the staff and board during the annual conference to let them get to know one another on a personal level. “I think that familiarity is very helpful,” said Carey. “When people feel more comfortable they are more likely to contribute their opinions and thoughts during a meeting.”


Another valuable aspect of the onboarding process involves mentoring. NSGC assigns a mentor to incoming board members when they attend the annual meeting, explained Carey. The new board member shadows his or her mentor throughout the conference to observe their interactions and duties. “It shows them how to interact with membership from a leadership perspective and gives them full visibility into what their role will entail,” said Carey.

AALNC also has a mentoring program for new board members, said Tamkus. Each new board member is assigned a “board buddy” who is available to answer questions and offer advice on any issues or protocols as necessary. The board buddy will typically reach out to the new board member before, during and after meetings and keep the lines of communication open throughout the first few months. The board buddy, or mentor, can also impress on the new board member the importance of being prepared for meetings and reading all the board materials in advance, Tamkus said.

Hit the Ground Running

Taking the time and energy to establish a defined onboarding process will help an organization compress the amount of preparation the new board member needs to be highly effective. “When an individual doesn’t understand their role, it can slow down or derail the work the association is trying to accomplish,” said Tamkus. When you must spend time explaining basic functions, it takes away from the strategic conversations the board should be having.

“If it takes members four to five months to get comfortable, in a two-year term that’s just too long,” said Carey. “They are elected for their expertise and you want them to jump in right away because if they're not doing that you're leaving an important voice out of the conversation, and that hurts the association.” Ultimately, you get better outcomes with a formal onboarding process, Carey added. “The quality of the interactions is better from day one. They can hit the ground running and be much more effective in their roles right away.”
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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