It is important to start your board's relationship with a new member on a positive note. Some boards make the mistake of signing up a new member, handing them a manual and then largely forgetting about them, assuming they will just get on with the job.
While many new board members may well do just that, you can help to make the settling-in process a little less daunting by having procedures in place to welcome and introduce new members to their role.
It is of utmost importance for your community group that your board functions as a team. Having one or some members who do not yet feel part of the team can therefore badly impact on the effectiveness of the board. The board member may be "green" but they will still have a vote – and you want to make sure that they know what they're voting on.
An induction process will also help to ensure that the new member can more easily grasp the processes, procedures and aims of the group, which will in turn help to boost their confidence. And the faster new board members become comfortable within their new role, the faster they will contribute.
Your board also needs to get to know its new member's strengths. An effective induction process can help in this process.
Your induction process should start straight away. Don't leave it for weeks or months. You need to strike while the new member's enthusiasm is at its peak. Confirming an appointment and then cutting the appointee adrift will probably leave a bad taste in their mouth – and a feeling that maybe their services are not so in demand after all.
While it is important to start the induction immediately, don't do it all at once. Bombarding a new board member with too much information can leave them feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. You should adopt a "drip-feed" approach. Hand over the manual straight away but then give them a few days or weeks to digest it before asking them for questions or feedback.
You can involve staff members in your induction or orientation process, but the board should lead the process. It is an excellent idea to offer the services of an experienced board member as a mentor for the new addition. The mentor should be able to offer insights into aspects of the running of the board that may be confusing at first – why meetings are held and how they are held; insights into the strengths of individual board members; explanations about issues with a complicated background, etc. The mentor should be available to answer questions the new board member has outside of board meetings and act as a sounding board for ideas or issues the new member may want to test before bringing up in a full meeting.
Your induction or orientation process can be formal or informal, or fall somewhere in between. Elements can include:
Step One - Initial contact
Make contact as soon as the board has confirmed a new member's appointment. Call them to let them know, and then follow up with a letter of congratulations. Tell them you will contact them again soon with more information about their new role.
Step Two - The board manual
Forward them a copy of your group's board manual (consult the Compiling a board manual help sheet if you don't have one already). The manual will serve as an initial introduction to the group as well as an ongoing reference. It should include:
- Background information about the group;
- Official documents, such as the constitution/articles of association, rules, the strategic plan, policies, budgets and an annual report;
- Biographical and contact information about board members, and staff (if appropriate);
- Meeting schedule and calendar of upcoming events;
- An introduction to the group's operational and committee structure;
- Information about board and board members' roles and responsibilities.
Give new members some time to digest the manual and then invite them to ask questions.
Step Three - Make the introductions
Introduce the new member to other members of the board (and senior staff, if appropriate) as soon as possible after their appointment. Involve them socially in board activities by organising drinks or dinner and inviting them to social functions. Allowing new board members the chance to get to know their colleagues in a more informal setting can help lay the groundwork for a more amicable and productive boardroom relationship.
Step Four - Roles and responsibilities
Draw the new member's attention to the roles and responsibilities of the board in general, and the roles and responsibilities they will be expected to undertake as an individual. Discuss any concerns they may have and ensure there aren't any gaping holes in their knowledge.
Step Five - Briefing
Take the new member through the minutes of recent meetings and brief them on issues the board is dealing with at the moment, or will be looking at in the future. Allow them time to digest the information and ask questions. Find out what they want to know more about – they could need more information about the group's programs, for example, or about the not-for-profit sector as a whole, or about their legal or ethical responsibilities.
Step Six - Take them on a tour
Invite new board members to take part in a tour of your community group's facilities and let them see your programs in action. Introduce them to staff, volunteers, members and the beneficiaries of the group's services. Having a first-hand "picture" of what the group does will help them make better decisions when it comes to voting on issues affecting the group.
Show them where the board meets, where they can park their car or catch the bus, where the kitchen is, where the toilets are, where the photocopier and other office equipment is (and the rules for its use).
Step Seven - Reverse the learning
Make your induction process "two-way", ensuring your board also gets to know its new member. Find out about the new member's interests, strengths, skills and what they hope to gain from their board experience. This will make for a more constructive board and will be useful when it comes to allocating responsibilities and places on sub-committees.
Step Eight - Invite feedback
Once the new member or members have settled in, invite them to give some feedback on your board's induction process. Ask them which parts of the process were useful and which were not, what they needed more of, and what they needed less of. Use their comments to improve your induction process in the future.