A group of people collaborating around a board table

Best Practices for Establishing a Nonprofit Board of Directors

Governing a nonprofit is complex. By making sure that new board members have access to context on your organization and its operating environment, you can ensure the success of your nonprofit’s board. Following these steps when designing a director onboarding program will help you to establish continuously effective governance.

Key Steps When Designing a Director Onboarding Program
1. Establish a Structured Onboarding Process

It is critical to ensure that new board members are quickly introduced to their roles and the criteria for success within them. To begin structuring a targeted onboarding process for new directors, think through the untapped potential or unexplored work verticals of the current board to inform the future direction of the board. This can help you plan an onboarding process that will smoothly integrate new directors into needed roles and focus areas.

2. Implement an Orientation Program

A board orientation is a one-time event designed to welcome a new board member to the organization and board, outline meeting schedules and board service logistics, define their role, and provide an overview of the organization. Board orientations should be welcoming as well as highly informative. A successful orientation should cover topics such as the board’s communication technology, membership rules and regulations, meeting logistics, governance and member responsibilities, current and planned business strategy, goals, risks, operating environment, and finances, development and funder relations, and information and technology security.

3. Require Face-to-Face meetings

The rise of teleworking has made it easier to rely on the quick and informal communication afforded by telephone or video calls. However, underutilizing face-to-face meetings can lead to complacency, chilled relationships, and confusion in the board’s members. Instituting a required number of face-to-face board meetings can assist in integrating new directors into the board, fostering continued relationship-building, and more accurately checking in on short- and long-term priorities.

4. Institute Required Reading of Past Materials

In addition to documents that characterize your organization’s context and approach, you may want to institute that new board members complete required reading of prior board meeting minutes, budget drafts, funder presentations, development materials, consultant reports, and more. This will allow the board members to quickly get up to speed on the important context around your nonprofit’s operating situation without having to dedicate meeting time to summarizing the past.

5. Begin the Onboarding Process as Soon as Possible

Start the onboarding process as soon as possible if you would like to avoid unnecessary delays in engaging board members during the crucial first steps. As soon as a board member’s nomination has been confirmed by the board, and a nomination has been found uncontested, you should immediately begin onboarding with the director-elect.

6. Foster Mentorship

a. Assign an informal mentor to new board members

You can leverage the experience and skills of long-time board members by assigning existing members of the board as mentors to new board members. This is another great way to jumpstart meaningful and productive work from first-time board members or those unfamiliar with the specifics of your organization’s board from the start of their engagement. 

b. Conduct regular check-ins every 2 meetings

It can help the onboarding process to personally check in with new board members after every two meetings. Use this time to ask the new director for their thoughts, feedback, and takeaways. This is also a valuable time to glean the new board member’s most pressing thoughts, as they can use their fresh perspectives in revamping long-established processes and operations.

c. Conduct 1-year anniversary reviews with new directors

At the end of the new director’s first year on the board, schedule a check-in meeting with the new member and the board leadership, to serve as both a review of the past year’s performance and a checkpoint for determining the next steps in the member’s board participation. This is a good chance to set goals and expectations for the next year for the individual. 

7. Customize Onboarding to Individual Directors

You can reinforce the quality of your organization’s leadership by clearly identifying the most important board responsibilities to new members. This is also a good opportunity to steer the actions of board members to specific focus or problem areas, like identity and direction, resource management, and timely and thorough oversight.

8. Ensure a Continuous Onboarding Process

Ensuring that onboarding is continuous is an important and often overlooked part of running a nonprofit board. Luckily, simple solutions like rotating committee membership within the board, or pairing mentors with new directors can help offset decay in the board’s continuous deepening of knowledge and expertise.

9. Make One Term of Audit Committee Membership Mandatory for New Directors

This experience is a good chance for new members of your board to learn key skills in mitigating organizational risk, understanding the finances and financial context of the organization, and navigating your organization’s operations. 

10. Ensure Continuing Communication between Board Members

It is crucial to ensure clear and constant communication between new members of the board and established ones. As communication can help or hinder even the most knowledgeable and experienced boards, you should take efforts to ensure that communication is regular and free between all members on the board.

11. Communicate Fiduciary Duty and Legal Requirements

Board members all must fulfill their fiduciary duties and abide by their legal requirements, or else the organization may quickly face insurmountable challenges. Beyond instructing board members on how to fulfill their legal and fiduciary requirements, certain organizations instruct board members on how to behave and operate based on individual legal counsel. It is crucial to determine with your legal counsel how to ensure risk management in your specific nonprofit board. For instance, your organization may require board members not to use email addresses managed by separate organizations for board-related activity. Further, your board members may be legally barred from conducting development with connections acquired through previous board memberships. 

12. Ensure Board Selection Diversity

Diversity within organizations, especially at the board level, is an important facet of organizational success. Diversity takes many forms, such as racial, educational, cultural, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, gender-based, sexuality diversity, and more. All forms of diversity are important to consider in the constituency of your board. If you minimize the diversity of voices on your board, your nonprofit and its board’s activities will be stymied in the future.