Greet the New Year With Effective Board Orientation

As I've been looking ahead to the New Year, board orientation has been top of mind. A lot of nonprofits and associations experience board and volunteer turnover at the end (or beginning) of the calendar year. So, I'm sure a lot of board chairs, CEOs and governance professionals have been thinking - "What do we need to do to make the transition smooth and successful?"

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Hopefully this question has already been asked and answered by those of you who manage governance. Successful board transitions require thoughtful planning and preparation - particularly when it comes to handling the "administrivia" of it all. Rosters need updating, meeting schedules and governance calendars should be well established, thank-you gifts need to be organized for outgoing board members, intake forms sent to new volunteers, Conflict of Interest Disclosures need updating, website bios and headshots need cuing up... I mean seriously, there is often a lot that needs doing!

One item I hope all nonprofits are including on their "governance transition task-list" is to facilitate orientation for new members coming onto the board ... or committees, if any. Orienting new volunteer leaders is a well established best practice to ensure boards and committees are well equipped to govern and lead effectively. Practically speaking, it is necessary for new members to be generally brought up to speed on the organization (i.e. mission, vision, bylaws, programs, processes etc.) Beyond that it is also important for them to understand how the board is supposed to function as a team and what their role is as individuals.

The truth is, orientations can be implemented in a number of different ways. Some organizations opt for doing a one-and-done on-site session for new members. Others like to chunk information out in a series of webinars or conference calls. It's not uncommon for orientations to be tailored to the individual(s) coming on board. A trend that I am in full support of, though, is to hold some (if not all) of the orientation for the entire board -- not just those coming in for the first time. Regardless of your own preferences, it is especially important to let the needs and preferences of the volunteers inform how best to organize orientation activities.

Independent of how orientations are carried out, there are some key components that I find are fundamental to any nonprofit orientation program:

  • Intake – New (and even continuing) volunteers need to be brought into the organization's governance system in an orderly way! This usually means collecting contact forms that carry important details -- such as dietary restrictions, emergency contacts and communication preferences. It is also a good time to collect key agreements - such as confidentiality agreements, statements of commitment and conflict of interest disclosures.
  • Onboarding – Board members also need to be provided information and resources that address the practical and logistical side of serving. (I like to call this the "Nuts and Bolts" stuff). This includes details like how to book travel for onsite meetings, how to access meeting materials, who to contact with questions, etc. These practicalities will look different from organization to organization, but addressing them up front will certainly save time and hassle in the long-run.
  • Orientation – To me, the crux of orientation is educating officers, directors and volunteers about the organization as a whole. This includes reviewing the organization's programs, governance structure, financial processes, strategic priorities and other substantive matters that will make them sufficiently knowledgable to govern effectively.
  • Learning – In addition to knowing the organization, board members (and other volunteers) need to know how best to carry out their respective roles. As such, nonprofits need to commit to providing quality learning programs that cover the responsibilities of board service, legal/fiduciary duties and other relevant governance best practices. Strategic thinking is also an important learning topic for boards, especially for members without much prior experience in that area.
  • Acclimation – Finally, bringing new members into a board or committee means continuously developing and strengthening the board’s existing culture. New and continuing volunteer leaders benefit greatly when the orientation experience gives everyone opportunities to acclimate (or re-acclimate) to the norms, values and established processes of the body. Activities that foster acclimation can include assigning mentors/buddies, facilitating team-building workshops or simply holding board learning sessions together as a team. 

What are the elements of board (or committee) orientation that you find to be most important to your nonprofit? What have been your pitfalls or obstacles to organizing orientation activities?


Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE is a nonprofit governance consultant and owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. To learn more, visit

© 2020 Rachel Miller-Bleich. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.


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