An Onboarding Checklist for New Board Members

by Joan Garry

You can't have a thriving nonprofit without a high-functioning board. Download the Onboarding Checklist here.

Back in the day, when I was a brand new board member, I was given a binder packed full with a bunch of stuff.

What kind of stuff, you ask? Well, it had loads of pages in it… and there were TONS of numbers… and I saw the words “strategic plan”… and then there were a bunch more pages with a bunch more numbers!

It felt a bit like the car manual in my glove box. Maybe you read it from cover to cover but it just overwhelmed me. It reminded me of the many things that I’m responsible for and yes, all the things that could go wrong.

I was told that while there was supposed to be a meeting to onboard a few of us new board members, well, there just wasn’t time right now.

“But, not to worry,” they said, “if you have questions about the bunch of stuff, you can always call or email so-and-so!”

I joined this board with a sense of excitement and pride — I chose this organization with care and intentionality. I wanted to participate in the work of THIS organization. I was ready to get going from day 1. I often talk about ideal board members having a mission pilot light on that you can see. Mine was shining so very brightly…

And all I got was a bunch of stuff.

As I was reminiscing about my time as a new board member, it got me thinking about all the information that would have really been useful to me on day 1. So, I know you will be excited to hear there is a downloadable checklist with this article that has everything you need to onboard your new board members.

But based on what I just said, be prepared — it’s light on stuff.


My checklist is more work than putting together a binder full of stuff. But, a new board member does need some stuff. The other thing that may feel onerous is that my checklist assumes an in-person (ideally) orientation.

Here’s a quick rundown. A new board member needs…

  • To FEEL like they joined the right organization — to affirm their decision to join THIS organization.
  • To feel like they belong and that they are seen and appreciated for all that they bring to the table.
  • To get their heads wrapped around where your organization is headed and what it aspires to become — so that their mission pilot light can get even brighter.
  • To feel like they are joining a team with the lion’s share of board members sharing the same passion they have for the mission.


Make no mistake. The above list is definitely non-negotiable, but here’s what I have learned:

The most important thing that a new board member needs is something that organizations don’t tell you…

A new board member wants to know what success looks like.

They want to be a great board member. They want folks to be sad when their term expires (you do have term limits, right?). When a board member leaves the board and gets handed a cheezy pen, they want to be able to speak with authenticity and pride about the contributions they made.

Write this down: People who join boards are accustomed to being successful. Tell them what success looks like and off they go.

And if you are an Executive Director saying “Well, if they give generously and raise money from others, that’s success in my book,” then I have six words for you: You are reading the wrong book.


“My board members are not clear about their role.”

I hear this all the time from staff and board leaders. They call folks like me and ask for resources or virtual workshops to educate their boards about their roles. Sometimes this happens because executive directors feel that their boards are veering into operations, so they ask someone to help them set their board members straight about governance v. operations.

But, I think this role clarity thing is code for “can someone please tell me what it looks like when I am doing a good job?”

This reframing is at the heart of the checklist I have provided.

You can Google away to find the bunch of stuff… or you can keep reading to grab your free download of this more streamlined and effective new board member orientation checklist.

And for each item, I have included a brief WHY.

Why? Because I need you to believe this orientation is a priority.

Why? It’s simple. You can not have a thriving nonprofit without a high-functioning board. We know the first step on that path is careful and intentional recruitment. Now let’s carefully and intentionally set them up for success.


And let me know what you think…

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