In order for Trustees to do their job well, they need to be properly prepared and introduced to the role. A formal induction process ensures that all Trustees are aware of what is expected of them, and it minimises conflict or poor performance further down the track. As you develop an induction process for your Trustees, consider the following:
Role, Responsibilities and Liabilities
For many people their first non-profit experience is one of helping out on a volunteer committee (think PTA or your child’s sports club). These committees are an essential part of keeping our communities going, but they are not a true representation of the Governance required for many larger organisations.
Unfortunately many people enter a Governance role assuming it’s just like joining a committee; it’s not. If your organisation is a registered charitable trust, you operate big budgets, own property or employ staff, then there is a whole lot more at stake. Trustees need to properly understand their role, responsibilities and liabilities from the outset.
It’s a good idea to create a Board handbook that, amongst other things, outlines the role of the Board (collectively) and Trustees (individually). If your new Trustee has no experience with Governance, you may want to consider some basic Governance training also. Don’t assume that everyone knows what they have signed up for.
Every organisation expects slightly different things from their Trustees, so even if your new Trustee has Governance experience, it is important that you outline expectations that are specific to your organisation.
For example, you may have an expectation that all Trustees make a financial donation to the organisation, or you may expect Trustees to leave a bequest to your cause. Both are great ideas, but they are not necessarily expected by all organisations, so you need to make them clear from the start.
Your Constitution or Trust Deed
Your founding document outlines the rules by which your organisation must be run, and it is your Board that is responsible for making sure those rules are followed. Therefore, it is essential that new Trustees are given a copy of your constitution or trust deed so they can read and understand the rules by which they are governing.
It is also good practice to have a copy of your founding document at every meeting, so that you can be sure that decisions are being made in accordance with your own rules.
History of Your Organisation
Sharing your organisation’s history is a vital part of helping people understand the big picture and can help to put their role into context. What was the catalyst for the organisation getting started? What have been the key points of the organisations journey so far? How has your organisation evolved and why?
Sharing your organisation’s history doesn’t have to be done in written form alone. Think creatively about how you can illustrate the journey using photographs, videos, graphs or storyboards. New Trustees don’t necessarily need to know the day-by-day happenings for the last 20 years, but it is important that they understand the key change points in your history.
Vision, Mission and Strategic Plan
Once Trustees understand your organisation’s past, they also need to understand its vision for the future – both internally and externally. What is the future you are trying to create? If your organisation was doing everything 100% right, what would your community look like as a result? How are you going to make that vision a reality?
These sorts of questions help guide decisions and keep your organisation on track. If Trustees don’t understand your vision, or why you do what you do, it is impossible for them to make effective decisions.
Code of Conduct
Like it or not, not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes ‘good behaviour’. What is acceptable for one person may be totally unacceptable for another – and never is that more evident than when you get a cross-section of the community sitting around a Board table.
To avoid potential upset, conflict or embarrassment further down the track, make sure that new Trustees are given a Code of Conduct when they first join the Board. What you include in this document is up to you, but you might want to consider things like use of language in meetings (eg. no swearing), rules about smoking or alcohol on premise, or how Trustees must conduct themselves when representing the Board. Don’t assume everyone thinks the same as you.
Meet the Team
Joining an existing Board can be challenging for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is working out where you fit. You can help ease this anxiety for new Trustees by providing them with some brief information about other Board Members, as well as a list of key staff and volunteers if appropriate.
Information could include how long the Trustee has been on the Board, how else they are (or have been) connected to the organisation, what their individual role is, or what specific skills and expertise they bring to the table. Having a photograph of each Trustee also makes the introduction process easier.
Recent Newsletters and Minutes
Reading recent newsletters will help new Trustees get a feel for what your organisation does on a day-to-day basis. Likewise, reading past minutes will orientate them to Board discussions and will highlight where thinking is at around specific projects or issues.
Make sure new Trustees get at least 6 months of newsletters and minutes to read through before they attend their first meeting. This will help them feel up-to-speed and enable them to actively contribute to discussions at the table.
The best way for a new Trustee to truly understand what your organisation does, is to get involved. Invite new Trustees to attend one of your programmes or take part in a special project or event. By getting amongst your members, clients or service users, they will have a much better appreciation of what the organisation does.
Having a hands-on experience shouldn’t be a ‘one-time-thing’ either. It is important that Trustees are exposed to your programmes and projects at regular intervals throughout the year.
When first joining the Board, make sure that Trustees declare all organisations or businesses they, or their immediate family, have an interest in. This could be other organisations where they are Trustees, businesses that they have a financial stake in, or clubs they are members of. This register is not just for areas where there is a perceived conflict – it is a register of all interests, conflicting or not.
The purpose of this register is to help with transparency when decisions are being made. Having a perceived conflict does not necessarily exclude a person from being a Trustee; it simply highlights areas where potential conflicts of interest may occur. This enables the Board to act in the proper manner if and when necessary.
Being an effective Trustee for any organisation is a big commitment and it is important that people understand that from the outset. By developing a basic contract, Trustees are more likely to take the role seriously. Those who are put off by a contract are likely to have lacked commitment in the first place.
The best time to develop an induction process for Trustees is at the beginning of your Boards life-cycle. The second best time is right now. If your current Trustees were thrown in the deep end and expected to swim, you might want to send them a life-line by properly inducting them on to the Board. Your induction process doesn’t have to be dull and boring, in fact, it should be delivered with the same enthusiasm and vibrancy you expect from Trustees.
Kerri is a Facilitator / Trainer with Exult and has over 20 years experience working in and for the community sector.
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