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Section 5. Welcoming and Training New Members to a Board of Directors

  • Why is it important to welcome and train new Board members?

  • When should you welcome and train new Board members?

  • How do you welcome and train an effective Board of Directors?

  • Special topic #1: Ongoing training of Board members

  • Special topic #2: Board members who need extra help

Nonprofit Boards are anything but static. New members join, old ones leave; even older ones return. People change ideas and views as they learn, talk, and grow more experienced. An effective Board is a dynamic, fluid group that brings new ideas to further a cause that they are passionate about.

Of course, all of this isn't always a smooth trip. And one of the bumps in the road can be working with new members. Having new members -- fresh blood -- is critical to the ongoing success of most Boards. But without the proper training, these members can be frustrated and ineffective -- they may even choose to leave -- making your Board as a whole much less than it could or should have been.

With the proper training, however, new Board members are sometimes the factors that make an average Board good, and make a good Board exceptional. Our goal in this section is to help you do that, and to change that "bump in the road" to a launch pad from which your organization will soar.

Are you ready to fly?

Why is it important to welcome and train new Board members?

A lot of this is probably intuitive. But let's recap, to ensure it's at the forefront of our thinking as we begin.

A proper welcome and training will help new members:

  • Take on their roles in the organization both quickly and comfortably
  • Feel more connected to one another
  • Feel more connected to the organization
  • Better understand their role on the Board -- why they were asked to join, and what is expected of them as members
  • Operate from the same "script" -- that is, to understand the vision, mission, and their roles in the organization in the same way
  • Feel more motivated to do a better job

When should you welcome and train new Board members?

It depends on your organization, how often you meet, and how often new members join the Board. Many Boards find that holding an official orientation session once a year, either before a regular meeting or during the organization's annual retreat, makes most sense. If your group has a certain time of year in which it recruits new members, it makes sense to hold this meeting immediately after new members have been recruited.

Recruitment can also take place both more casually and more often than the way we are focusing on in this section. For example, in some cases "orientation" might be a dinner or meeting with just the Board President and a welcome as a brief agenda item during a regular meeting; and/or orientation might take place informally with a mentor for the new member.

This more casual approach makes most sense when:

  • The organization is local and/or very small
  • The new Board member already knows most of the existing Board members
  • The new member is already very familiar with the organization's work

For that type of Board member, there's almost never a bad time to welcome them to the Board family -- this informal orientation can occur as needed with very little fanfare.

For example, a small, all-volunteer crisis-counseling center in the Midwest routinely asks two of its volunteer counselors to sit on its Board. Since the Board and volunteers routinely celebrate holidays and accomplishments together at parties organized by the center's director, the volunteers have generally already met the other Board members in a laid back circumstance, and they are clearly familiar with the organization's mission and work. In this case, a full-blown orientation session is probably not necessary.

If training Board members for your organization happens in a similar set of circumstances, you might want to "pick and choose" from among the more detailed ideas presented in this section for a less formal orientation and training session for your Board members. It's also true that all of the information is given in a framework of a single session. In reality, much of what follows can and often does occur in a much less formal atmosphere. Again, we suggest that you use these ideas as a framework, and use ideas as they make sense to you.

How do you welcome and train an effective Board of Directors?

There are three major steps in setting up such a session: advance preparation, the welcoming and training session itself, and follow-up. Let's look at these ideas one by one.

Before the welcoming and training session:

Decide who should attend

Will it be mainly new members, or will you include the entire Board? Especially if the session coincides with a retreat, this might be a good time for all Board members to refresh their ideas of what the Board is and what it will do.) Also, decide if paid staff will be present. If new members haven't yet met staff members, and it's logistically possible, it's probably a good idea. If not, be sure to find a different time for the new member(s) to meet staff and at least some of the organization's volunteers.

Decide who will facilitate the meeting

This might be a "no-brainer ;" very often the facilitator role falls to the Board chair and/or the chief executive. However, there are other possibilities as well. One is to bring in someone from the outside - an organizational developer or other consultant. You wouldn't necessarily want to do this every time, but it might be useful if you have a slew of new Board members coming on at one time. Another possibility is to have one or more staff members run an orientation. This idea often works out really well. If you're a participant-centered organization, it may make sense to have a participant or group of participants facilitate at least part of the meeting.

Send out information for attendees to look over before the meeting

All attendees should receive:

  • Notice of the meeting, along with all of the relevant logistical information (when, where, hotels to stay at if the meeting isn't local for everyone, and so on). If a) the meeting is particularly important (e.g., an annual retreat), or b) your Board meets rarely (e.g., quarterly), this information should be received at least a month before the upcoming meeting or retreat.
  • A reminder, often in the form of a postcard, to arrive a week before the meeting.
  • A proposed agenda for the upcoming meeting.
  • A list or notice of anything you want members to bring to the meeting. (For example, "Be sure to bring your Board manual, as we'll be reviewing it and passing out supplements!")
  • A tentative list of whom will be at the meeting, with an explanation of who they are. (For example, "Toumani Chiabete is a social worker at Shawnee County Mental Health Center and is one of our new Board members... Theresa Welsko has been our exceptionally capable administrative assistant for the past seven years... Melissa is one of our clients, who has served on our Board for the past year and a half.).
  • Contact information, such as addresses/phone/e-mail contact for all Board members.

New members should receive:

A lot of information, (well before the meeting so they will have time to read it), including:

  • A Board manual, if one exists (see Examples for topics it might include )
  • Minutes of previous meetings
  • Articles, both negative and positive, that have been written about the organization
  • Materials developed about the organization and its programs (brochures, press kits)

Can you overwhelm a new Board member with material?

Possibly. But generally speaking, it's far better to give a Board member (new or old) too much information, rather than not enough. It's critical that Board members are well informed about what's going on with the organization, the issue the organization stands for, and the nonprofit sector as a whole. So go ahead, send out that information. At worst they won't read all of it; at best, Board members may be far more informed than you had even hoped for!

The welcoming and training session itself:

Give everyone name tags and make sure everyone has a chance to meet everyone else

If it is simply a regular meeting time (as opposed, say, to a two-day retreat), you might consider a "social hour" either before or after the meeting itself to let people have a chance to get to know one another. This doesn't have to be formal -- you might offer to buy the first round if folks want to join you for drinks after the meeting.

If people haven't met, they should be introduced -- and if you can swing it, you might want to let them know something they have in common to help break the ice. ("Christen, let me introduce you to Thurman -- he's the only person I've ever met who likes soccer more than you do."

Remember: One of the major reasons people join Boards is to meet other people. The easier and more enjoyable you can make that, the happier (and more effective) your Board is likely to be.

Explain (or review) major topics which concern the Board

This might include:

  • The Board Manual
  • The mission, vision and values of the organization
  • An overview of the organization's history
  • Roles and responsibilities of the Board and the staff, including time expected or normal time commitments
  • An administrative calendar which schedules important Board activities
  • An organizational chart, including the list of current and planned committees
  • Information about how the Board conducts its meetings -- what kinds of rules do you use to make sure that things get done?

How formal is your Board?

A great many Boards use Robert's Rules of Order to keep the meeting running smoothly and efficiently; if yours doesn't and is frustrated with its meeting process, you might consider trying it out. It really depends on how formal your Board is and how into procedure you want to get. Robert's Rules are logical, and they aren't a bad set of guidelines for running a meeting; but they're also very detailed and nitpicky. For example, anyone who wants to be obstructionist can have a field day if they know the ins and outs of the rules. Obviously, you're not going to intentionally appoint contrarians to your Board, but they do turn up anyway.

In addition, running a Board by Robert's Rules can be really intimidating to those who aren't familiar with them and with procedure in general, such as program participants who have become Board members.

Especially in a grass roots, inclusive organization, you may be better off either using a modified version of Robert's Rules, or creating your own guidelines or group norms. You'll certainly want to have motions recorded accurately in the minutes, for instance, and want the chair to have the capacity to keep the meeting under control while still allowing for free discussion and giving everyone a chance to be heard. But the bottom line is, if you don't want to use Robert's Rules, make sure you find or develop a set of rules that do work for you.

Ensure adequate time for questions and answers

Also make sure that new members know who they should contact with questions and concerns on different topics in the future.

One idea that is used by many organizations is pairing new Board members with a "buddy," -- a current Board member who is willing to help orient the new member, and answer questions that he or she may have.

Make sure to involve new members immediately

Don't let them go home without any homework! Instead, involve them in relevant committees or on projects that interest them at the first meeting. As with almost anything in life, strike while the iron is hot, and get people involved while energy is high. Becoming immediately immersed in the group's work will also solidify members' ideas of what the organization is all about.

After the welcoming and training session:

Send out minutes that detail what was said

Make sure to emphasize any what agreements that were made or actions that will come out of the meeting. (For example, "Alpa has agreed to contact the different banks in our area and ask for their financial support for our upcoming fundraiser.") Make sure that these minutes are sent out promptly -- within a week of the meeting. Minutes from a meeting three months ago have lost much of their power to prompt people to follow up on their commitments.

Send out an evaluation form for all Board members

Ask for their opinions of how they thought the orientation and training session went. Again, this should go out promptly (possibly with the minutes). You might also consider giving it to members at the end of the session. Giving it to them at the meeting can be advantageous because ideas and thoughts are still going to be fresh in their minds. What's more, you're sure to get a better return rate! On the other hand, having them mail them to you allows people to send you ideas once they have had a chance to reflect on what happened at the meeting. Both ideas hold merit; it's up to you to decide what is best for your organization.

For new members, follow up with a phone call to see how things went and what questions remain

The person who calls can also make sure that the meeting schedule of the committee(s) they signed up for will work for them, that they feel comfortable with what they've committed to do, and can fill them in more on the details of the specific work they've volunteered for.

Special topic#1: Ongoing training of Board members

Of course, once you finish the original training session, your work has really just begun. Board training can (and should!) continue as long as your Board is functioning. Not only does this help your Board become stronger, it also provides a chance for Board members to continue their education.

There are several ways to approach continuous Board training. One is to schedule regular training sessions several times a year - maybe 3 or 4. What kind of training will go on at those sessions might depend on what the issues are that year, or on who's available at the scheduled times to do a workshop, presentation, etc. Thus, everyone on the Board knows when trainings are going to be, and can schedule around them accordingly.

Another way to do it is as needed. A problem comes up, Board members say "we need help here,"and you arrange, or go look for someone to provide, training on the issue at hand.

A third possibility is to organize trainings around predetermined topics each year (Board responsibilities, tax-exempt issues, conflict of interest, etc.), keeping them broad enough that they don't repeat, but making sure everyone in the organization gets enough information and insight to understand the issues and react appropriately when they come up.

Finally, trainings don't always need to happen in the flesh -- a lot of smaller things your organization does can contribute to ongoing learning. For example:

  • A special newsletter can be developed for the Board
  • Board members can receive copies of the organization's general newsletter
  • Generic tip sheets on Board development can be sent to all members for review
  • Develop a listserv or an interactive website exclusively for Board members

These ideas are certainly easier to carry out (in many ways) than live Board trainings, and might have their place in your organization.

For trainings done together, one key point is to attract the largest number of Board members to trainings. One possibility is to include a brief training - perhaps half an hour - at each Board meeting, so that it is seen as a regular part of the business of the Board.

Another issue is how to conduct trainings. They definitely don't all have to be the same. You can bring in people to conduct some of the training, and you might do others internally, depending upon the resources and expertise available, and the form you want sessions to take.

For example, training sessions can be self-generated and -conducted, using discussion and peer supervision to address issues. They can also conducted by program participants or staff members, depending on the topic. An accountant on the Board could do a training on tax issues, a lawyer on legal responsibility, a doctor on health issues, etc.

Some possibilities for training topics:

  • Board responsibilities and legal issues (liability, conflict of interest, etc.)
  • More on legal issues (indemnification, tax issues, lawsuits)
  • Discussion of the organization's vision, mission, philosophy, etc. - where they came from, what's the foundation (theoretical, political, or otherwise), etc.
  • The actual work of the organization - program or other activities: what do people actually do every day, in their interactions with target population and others?
  • The Board's relationship to the organization
  • How Boards work
  • How to be a productive Board member
  • Financial issues - how the organization's finances work, where the money comes from, current status, etc.
  • How to argue productively in meetings
  • Interpersonal relations/conflict resolution
  • Problem solving
  • Strategic planning - why you'd want to and how to do it
  • Needs, concerns, demographics, etc. of the target population
  • Fundraising
  • PR
  • Relations with the community
  • Relations with staff
  • Staff compensation and benefits
  • Program evaluation

Special topic # 2: Board members who need extra help

Sometimes, you will have new Board members who may need more than a simple orientation. This is especially true if your organization asks participants or other people with less formal education to be Board members.

From the former director of a Massachusetts-based literacy organization:

The Literacy Project Board always included students, and they always had trouble figuring out what they were doing there, how the Board worked, what was expected of them, etc. Most of them had not only never been on a Board before, they had never been part of a deliberative body of any kind before - no committee, no PTA...nothing. The result was they had no idea what was going on, and were often too diffident to say so. They would nod their heads, speak when spoken to, and generally feel lost and stupid. They also often felt caught between two worlds because of their position. Most students saw the Board as part of another world: it was the body that ran the organization, and was made up of "important" people (actually most of them were human service types and teachers, but one person's "important..."). Thus a student on the Board took on an aura that she didn't necessarily want.

The point is that all of this needs to be addressed if you have participants or other low-income or less-educated people on the Board, and it isn't easy. Even after we figured out what was going on and tried to deal with it, we found it really hard to devise orientation and training that spoke to the problem in a way that students could respond to. We were still trying when I left, although we had made some progress.

It's important that your organization thinks about these issues if you have similar people coming onto the Board. Other, similar issues may come up if new members join who:

  • Don't speak English as their first language
  • Are the first or only woman/minority/young person on the Board
  • Are simply very shy by nature

Certainly, there are no easy answers to questions like these. However, it's important that these issues aren't ignored, and that they don't come as a complete surprise to organizations that are trying to be inclusive.

In Summary

We've described what represents a fairly formal look at Board training. Many Boards, certainly, are much less structured and conventional than we've talked about here. So when you're developing your game plan for training, make sure it's just as loose, informal, and light-hearted as your organization. A well-defined, well-run training will go miles in making your Board's work outstanding -- but leavening it with a few laughs will help to make the Board itself a wonderful creation to be a part of.

Contributor 
Jenette Nagy
Phil Rabinowitz

Houle, C. (1997). Governing boards. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marinelle, F. (July-August, 1998). Encouraging visionary board leadership. Nonprofit world, vol 16.

Roth, S. (August, 1998). How does you Board measure up? Grassroots Funding Journal, vol. 17.

Wood, M. (1995). Nonprofit Boards and leadership: Cases on governance, change, and board-staff dynamics. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nonprofit Board Resource Catalog. Available from the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, Suite 510, 2000 L St., Washington, DC 20036-4907. Telephone 800-883-6262 or 202-452-6262, Email: ncnb@ncnb.org, Order online at www.ncnb.org.

Carver, J., (1990). Boards that make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stoesz, E. and Raber, C. (1994). Doing good better! How to be an effective board member of a nonprofit organization. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Online Resources

The Board Cafe is an electronic newsletter for members of nonprofit boards of directors.

Boardsource is a large site, with catalog and on-line ordering, lots of links, resources of various kinds, FAQs, etc.

The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits provides lots of resources, including a model of Responsibilities and Position Descriptions for Nonprofit Board Members.

Board information from the American Society of Corporate Secretaries and NCNP.

Nonprofit G.E.N.I.E. (Support Centers of America) links to topics of interest to nonprofits, including Board management.