The Director’s Life Cycle: Onboarding, Orientation & Offboarding

by | Director, Engagement, Governance, Non-Profit Focused

Nonprofit organizations face challenges in meeting the demands of the directors life cycle; onboarding, orientation and offboarding directors every year. The article provides tips to successful onboarding new directors, providing them with an orientation and how to offboard any directors that are leaving the board.

Getting new volunteers onboarded quickly allows them to get up to speed and be ready to serve. The transferring of information and processes can require a multitude of organization and effort, but if done correctly, can become the stepping-stone to new ideas and future successes within the board of directors.

First Steps

So, what are the first steps to the successful integration of new board members, you may ask. An initial meet and greet with the Chair and other members of the board are essential  in establishing new relationships, discussing work styles and problem-solving methods. Overall, you want members to become  familiar with their new environment and surroundings. This is also where the transfer of, relevant information and protocols can occur. If your board of directors uses board management software such as BoardSpace, this can make the organization and access to such information much  more manageable. BoardSpace organizes documents and important materials  in one place, making it simpler for new board members to get up to date and allowing future information-exchanging to go swiftly.

“Handover meetings to new directors are a breeze because the directors’ notes, board documents, meeting minutes etc. are already in BoardSpace. With one click, a new director gets access to that treasure-trove of association history and knowledge.”

Sarah Davis, Executive Director, Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa

The Culture

The next process in integrating new members to your board is going over the rules and establishing “the culture” of the organization and board.  This is where the Chair can discuss their work style preferences and approaches to board operations. the preferred method of contact for members and going over strategic planning. Board practices vary, and this conversation can bring clarity to how the board fulfills its mandate, the usual meeting schedule, logistics, and document distribution procedures.

It is important to get to know one another and learn what makes each other “tick.” Remember, your members are volunteers, thus using personal time to aid in your organization’s efforts. The early establishment of healthy relationships can prove to be vital in the upcoming meetings and interactions. Every board is unique and no matter how much experience one has, it is essential to share these vital pieces of information so they can quickly gain comfort with how the group operates.

Establishing Policies

Once the initial outreach has taken place by the Chair, other important processes can get underway such as disclosure of any conflict of interest.  This may include a sign-off on the Board’s Conflict of Interest Policy.  New board members will also need copies of any important governance documentation.  This should likely include a personal copy of the Board Manual containing key documents such as the annual budget, the latest financial statements, and a copy of the strategic plan.

An Introduction of the New to the Old

The initial introduction of new board members to other directors and senior staff is another essential factor in the recruitment process.  An informal dinner is a good option.  If the director will be required to learn or take courses to get up to speed in the organization’s sector, this is the time to make sure they are registered for courses needed or specialized training.

It is best if all these things can be scheduled between appointments and the new member’s first meeting.  Information handed over at the first official meeting will not be of much use if any approvals are required that first night!

Annual Orientation Meetings

Consider holding an extensive orientation session each year that could turn into an annual event. This gives the full board a chance to mingle and get to know each other before an official meeting. The session might cover topics such as the history of the organization, current priorities, briefings on the strategic plan, budget, or other key business components.

It is crucial to keep in mind that onboarding is a form of familiarization, and every board has its share of ‘hidden arts’ or ‘unwritten rules.’  Don’t assume that these things are obvious.  If everyone takes turns to buy dinner, be sure the new recruits understand how it works.  If it is an unwritten rule that everyone offers an opinion in a round table format before a decision is made – demonstrate these methods in a mock meeting.  Every board is unique, and no matter how much experience one has, it is essential to share these vital pieces of information so they can quickly gain comfort with how the group operates.

The orientation materials can consist of anything about the board but should outline anything a new director needs to function in their role.  In addition to the topics already cited, that could include organizational charts, board contact information, meeting dates for current and future years, upcoming fundraising or advocacy events, and the minutes from a few recent board meetings.

Staying Refreshed

There is never really an official end-date in the process of integrating a new team member to your Board of Directors. The Chair should check in with new directors and ask how things are going partway through the year.  They can make sure that directors are feeling comfortable with the meeting logistics as well as the business items at hand.  Allowing a newly appointed director to speak their mind and share ideas can make them more likely to speak up if they want more information about any subject on the board’s agenda.

The “Buddy-System”

Many organizations use a buddy system to offer a peer support network.  After recruiting a new director, they could be assigned a seasoned board buddy who is available to support them, answer questions, and help them navigate their new role!

“Offboarding” and Next Steps

Once the onboarding process is complete, it is never too early to start planning the work for the ‘off-boarding’ stage at the end of a director’s term.  Having a checklist outlining the necessary steps can only help both the organization and the director who is leaving.

    1. Ensure that all business and compliance requirements are met. Do they have anything tangible that needs to be returned such as an iPad, office supplies, or branded items for fundraising (e.g. t-shirts, give-away swag, business cards, etc.)?
    2. If the organization uses a board management software, there should be a process to close their account. Was a board manual distributed?  If so, this could be retrieved for re-use and updating for new members of the board.
    3. Be sure to keep your list of directors’ terms up to date as well – input their end of service date, or if they have resigned early, have them provide it in writing for the board records.
    4. Sensitive Information may also have to be secured or updated. This can range from the official – such as Canada Revenue Agency – to closer to home – there are likely lists on the organization’s website, intranet, executive office lists, expense reports, etc. There are likely many places to check to be sure records are up to date!

Planning for the Directors Life Cycle

The directors life cycle presents lots of challenges when planning the orientation, onboarding and offboarding of directors.

A final point to reflect on is that ultimately a board director is providing a service and fulfilling a role.  When their term of office is over, make a point of thanking them for their service.  Be specific and personal. Celebrate their contributions to the the organization.  You may inspire newly recruited board members to begin working on their legacy right out of the starting gate.