Cassandra’s college professor said, "After graduating you should join a professional association, and if there is a chance for a leadership role you should take it."

After she landed her first job, she joined an association. A few months later she received a call from the elected president asking, "We have an open seat on the board of directors, would you consider serving?"

She felt honored and accepted without hesitation. The time between accepting the seat and her first board meeting would be critical. She needed the information to become a valuable member of the board.

It’s called onboarding. Onboarding is the process of integrating new board members into the organization so they can be effective in their roles and responsibilities.

"It is critical to help new directors prepare for their first meeting. In our organization, I schedule a meeting with them soon after they're elected to go over processes, procedures and to answer any questions they may have. Every January, we have our leadership orientation where we provide relevant information — bylaws, policies, and financials — and usually include an organizational or industry expert to speak about the fiduciary responsibilities of leadership," offers Wil Riley, CEO and CAE at the Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS®.

Orientation Processes

Effective directors are developed through orientation processes. There are several approaches to transferring the knowledge.

Personal Visit — Some organizations visit the new board member at their work setting. This affords the executive director a chance to get to know the interests of the new leader. The new director might consider it a compliment that an association representative is spending time at their place of work.

Association Office Visit — Another approach is to extend an invitation for the new director to visit the association. Spending time in the office of the executive director imparts knowledge and familiarizes the board member with association operations, priorities and the staff.

Both methods have value for onboarding directors. What’s missing is group dynamics.

Group Orientation

Group dynamics occur when the entire board participates in the orientation. With the involvement of the full board, the seasoned volunteers add their perspectives to the challenges and opportunities of board service.

Learning about responsibilities and assignments can feel daunting. The veteran directors are in a position to explain that support is available and the board works as a team.

In another example, understanding rules of order can be frustrating to a novice. A more senior director can instill confidence with a quick explanation, "What is important about rules of order is to remember to make a clear motion and to seek a second; without a second it dies."

More experienced volunteers nearly always have ideas and tips for effective governance. They can serve as mentors or board buddies to newer volunteers.

Yearly Refresh and Blend

There is value to conducting onboarding with a blend of experienced and new directors.

New directors want to feel like part of the team rather than to be treated as newbies where they wait six months to speak up or offer ideas. They are in need of information, while the experienced directors might wish to skip the training.

"Our board orientation is conducted annually. In some years the content is more in-depth than others. I always meet with new directors and give them a high-level overview of the organization, expectations, strategic direction, roles and responsibilities," says Heidi Zich, IOM, executive vice president of Home Builders Association of the Fox Cities in Appleton, Wisconsin. "At the start of our association year, the number of new directors determines the type of orientation that is conducted. Every director is given a folder of information including compliance documents to sign."

In addition to imparting knowledge, there are some policy and legal advantages to an annual orientation.

The IRS expects all directors to disclose conflicts of interest annually. The doctrine of volunteer immunity requires board members to work within the governing documents, thus orientation is the right time to distribute a leadership manual containing the bylaws, articles and policies among other information.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests trade associations promote measures to avoid antitrust violations. The annual budget needs review and approval. Progress on the strategic plan should be discussed at orientation.

Orientation Agenda

An orientation might take 1.5 to 3 hours — a small investment of time to plan a successful year. It can be divided into four sections.

About the Association

  • Mission Statement
  • Elevator Speech
  • Workforce – Board, Committees, Staff
  • Resources

Director Responsibilities

  • Fiduciary Duties
  • Governing Documents
  • Board Staff Distinctions

Strategic Direction

  • Strategic Plan Introduction
  • Tracking Mechanisms
  • Committee Alignment with the Plan

Risk Avoidance

  • Protections and Insurance
  • Concepts of Risk Management
  • Risk Avoidance

Orientation can be conducted by a team, including an experienced executive director, the counsel of an attorney, accountant and insurance agent, and seasoned volunteers.

Zilch offers, "I prefer that our board chair conduct as much as possible. It empowers him or her and demonstrates competency to fellow leaders. I may coach the chair about what is important to communicate during orientation."

Cassandra’s likelihood of board success and satisfaction will be improved with the transfer of knowledge through the orientation processes.