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Board Management

Tactics for Effective Board Member Onboarding

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A new term can be an exciting time to bring fresh perspectives onto your board of directors. However, it can also be challenging for new members to figure out their roles. Onboarding strategies that are clear, comfortable, and engaging can help new members better understand their responsibilities and serve as a useful recap for returning members.

Each year, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases holds an onboarding session for new and returning board members.

“I think everyone can learn from these discussions, regardless of whether you’ve already served on the board,” said NFID Executive Director and CEO Marla Dalton, PE, CAE. “Since the pandemic, some of our members haven’t met in person, so it’s important to include the full board.”

When done well, onboarding sessions help new members better understand the association’s goals and their role in moving those objectives forward.

“Boards need to be agile,” said David Falchek, CAE, principal at DF Solutions. “You can’t wait a year until new members are fully contributing. Each individual needs to understand what’s going on.”

Creating onboarding experiences that are not only informative and insightful but also fun and engaging can help new volunteer leaders better understand their duties so they can quickly start supporting the association’s vision.

Create a Comfortable Atmosphere

A high-functioning board requires strong personal relationships. This can be difficult to achieve for remote boards, so organizations need to ensure that members get to know one another.

“This builds a trust relationship that empowers them to tackle pressing and sometimes contentious issues,” Falchek said. “Volunteer leaders want to grow and be transformed by their experiences. By creating those opportunities for directors, we get the best of what they have to offer.”

NFID begins its onboarding meeting with fun ice breakers that allow members to get to know one another. That’s especially important since several members started their terms during the pandemic and because NFID holds virtual meetings.

“At the last meeting, we asked members about their first concert experience,” Dalton said. “These fun questions lighten the mood and help the board build comradery.”

NFID’s onboarding session features presentations from the chair and returning members about board roles and responsibilities.

“Our current president discusses her work to give new board members a better sense of what to expect,” Dalton said. “She’s shared the importance of media training, ways to engage with staff, and how to tell which tasks are best-suited for volunteer leaders or for staff.”

Dalton encourages returning members to give presentations as well, which helps them feel more engaged in the activity. In this way, the onboarding session becomes a valuable experience for new and returning directors.

“Have a clear, concise strategic plan that can serve as a North Star against which the board can consider new ideas and projects.”—Marla Dalton, PE, CAE, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

Set Clear Expectations

If board members don’t understand the association’s culture and strategic plan, they may derail progress or add additional work that isn’t authorized.

“Have a clear, concise strategic plan that can serve as a North Star against which the board can consider new ideas and projects,” Dalton said. “One that offers a balance between inspiring innovation and creativity without taking the organization off course or detracting from the mission.”

According to Falchek, a lot of what associations do for incoming board members is built around the prudent-person rule, a legal principle that says a prudent person with this responsibility should be aware and knowledgeable about certain things.

“For associations, that would include recent work of the board, the current financial status, and the organization’s role,” he said. “Elements such as a year of minutes, financials, the most recent audit, board policies, programs and services, and legal matters help directors meet that standard.”

Falcheck also recommends securing a signed commitment from incoming directors. He uses a “Consent to Serve” document, which is a three-way agreement among the chair, executive, and new director summarizing the rights, responsibilities, and expectations each party has to the other.

“People are more likely to comply with something they sign their name to,” he said. “It can be a screening tool as well. Some prospective directors may read it and turn down the post.”

Allow Room for Growth

In addition to offering opportunities for volunteer leaders to get to know each other and setting clear expectations, Dalton recommends asking board members for feedback on how to improve the experience.

NFID provides a survey to board members after the onboarding session. The questions touch on what directors like and didn’t like about the process, suggestions for alternate approaches, whether the meeting helped them understand their role in the organization, and whether they understand how they can contribute to fulfilling its mission.

Through these surveys, NFID ensures its onboarding process meets expectations. For example, one board member told Dalton last year that the association should return to in-person onboarding sessions. When she included that question in the survey, most of the board preferred virtual meetings because they fit better into their schedules.

“Getting feedback is crucial,” she said. “If members feel that something isn’t working, then we need to be open to making changes. An engaged board member who sees the big picture and understands where they fit in is a great asset, so you need to do [onboarding] right.”

Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now.

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