Identifying and Orienting New Board Members: What’s Your Strategic Plan?

Date February 21, 2024

You put a great deal of effort into developing your staff; just as much effort should go into developing effective board members.

Nonprofits should have a strategic plan for identifying and qualifying board candidates. At its roots, the plan should include a regular review of the board profile to identify holes in the board’s composition. Are the necessary skills represented: legal, financial, banking, investing, accounting, insurance, and fundraising expertise? Does the current board represent your constituency or do you need younger, more diverse members?

Terms and term limits should be plotted out. Current board members should be evaluated. Are they all active or should some be approached or coached to resign? Once such an assessment is done, you can start identifying potential new candidates.

Evaluating prospective board members

Many nonprofits develop volunteer opportunities to test the interests and commitment of prospective candidates. Committees are an excellent way to gauge how candidates will contribute. Ad hoc committees are often formed for a specific purpose and then dissolved once the purpose is satisfied. These kinds of activities can provide evidence of how the candidates will work with others and how much time they are willing to give.

Often, senior members of management or board officers are charged with approaching board candidates. Serious cultivation and information sharing is necessary before inviting a person to serve on a board. There should be a script or position description prepared before the “ask.”

Some key things a candidate should know:

  • Total time commitment, including meetings and other board-required activities. Are activities “in person” or virtual? Is travel required? How much preparation time is required before each board meeting?
  • Financial commitment. While it is desirable that all board members should contribute, contribution levels could differ among members. Many organizations have a “give or get” commitment, the point being that if a member cannot commit to a meaningful contribution, who will they introduce to the organization who would be able to give?

Besides time and financial commitments, each board member is expected to:

  • Understand the organization’s missions and programs.
  • Be an active advocate for the organization.
  • Understand the board’s role in the organization’s structure. Smaller organizations may require board members to act more like volunteer staff members, while larger organizations might require the board to respect the boundaries between the board and the staff.

In the end, after careful consideration, it might be decided that a candidate will not make an effective board member. From the Summit Junto platform:

“Who Should Not Serve On A Board Of Directors?

  • Those Who Lack Objectivity. …
  • People Who Are All Talk And No Action. …
  • Those Who Are Conflict-Averse. …
  • People Who Don’t Play Well With Others. …
  • Those Who Are Greedy. …
  • People Who Are Resistant To Change. …
  • People Who Are Not Team Players. …
  • People Who Don’t Believe in the Mission.”

I’d add:

  • Anyone with a material conflict of interest with the organization, its mission, management, or other board members.


Once a candidate is qualified, is asked, and accepts, the next phase of work begins, the goal being that all board members will be active and engaged. The first step is implementing an effective orientation process. Again, this requires planning; you might want to involve a professional, an expert in the process.

If there is a board manual or portal, many of the basic documents that new members will need to review should already be gathered there:

  • Organizing documents: formation document, IRS determination letter, bylaws, general governance policies, strategic plan document
  • Financial document: recent audits, tax returns, budgets, internal financial reports
  • Other board information: board members’ contact information, calendar of board and committee meetings, conflict-of-interest policy, a summary of directors’ and officers’ insurance coverage, management and staff organizational chart

The orientation process can involve too much to complete in one meeting. Some boards plan an hour of board orientation every month and bring in qualified guests to speak. The organization’s attorney can speak on board fiduciary responsibilities, and the organization’s CPA can present the financials and tax filings. Key staff members should be called on to introduce their programs.

It’s important to remember the new board members will have different areas of expertise and differing personal histories. And the organization’s jargon might seem foreign to them. No two boards or board members are alike, so don’t assume any levels of knowledge or understanding of new members.

Orientation is just step one. Many high-functioning boards assign board mentors to new members. Like staff mentors, board mentors build bonds with their new member mentees and can troubleshoot problems, if needed. Standard “check-ins” should be a protocol for monitoring the new member’s commitment and enthusiasm and answering questions.

Many boards use annual 360-degree evaluations to allow both parties, the member and officers, to evaluate the new member’s relationship with the organization. If it’s not working, the evaluation gives the board an easy way out of the new relationship. Remember, they can still be an ambassador or major donor.

In conclusion, great board members are those with a passion for the cause and a commitment to the organization. Making them great takes work.

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