Two men smiling and looking at a camera on a table in an office, with others conversing in the background
Heritage Open Days event at The Engine House, Swindon, 10 September 2022. Staff member Gary Winter with a visitor. © Historic England Archive. DP393106.
Heritage Open Days event at The Engine House, Swindon, 10 September 2022. Staff member Gary Winter with a visitor. © Historic England Archive. DP393106.

How Do We Make Effective and Informative Board Member Onboarding Documents?

What is this resource for?

Our research shows that heritage boards struggle with recruiting diverse trustees. This resource is designed to guide organisations in developing trustee onboarding documents and procedures, such as trustee handbooks and information packs.

This advice was produced on behalf of Historic England by Getting on Board.

This resource forms part of a wider strand of work around heritage board diversity. For other resources in this series, see the 'Inclusive governance boards and diverse trustees' section of the Inclusive Heritage Advice Hub.

What are the key points?

  • A strong onboarding process is vital to giving new trustees the best possible start to their time on the board
  • Regular communication and conversations are essential during onboarding
  • There should be an opportunity for potential and new trustees to ask questions, which may include those of a challenging nature
  • A concise but thorough trustee handbook will provide both new and current board members with information to act confidently in their role

How do we start developing an inclusive onboarding process?

Once you have followed your recruitment and interview process, you may be eager for the successful applicant(s) to join your board as soon as possible.

It is advisable, however, to have a conversation amongst board members (including incoming board members) about whether anything needs to change given the new membership, such as offering mentoring, buddying, or training, or reviewing the scheduling and timing of meetings.

Onboarding is a vital step to get right. Offer potential board members the opportunity to observe a board meeting. Organisations can successfully recruit, but if they have not adjusted their practices to make them inclusive to the new board members, it can lead to individuals stepping down.

Depending on the board agenda, invite potential board members to attend the whole or most of the meeting (explaining why they are unable to attend any reserved matters discussions). This gives all parties the chance to make an informed decision.

At the start of your onboarding process, make sure you offer an induction to help new board members understand why your organisation exists, its purposes and aims, where it operates, how it is trying to achieve its aims, and who it helps.

On the subject of purposes, the Charity Commission (the regulator for charities in England and Wales) says: "Clarity on these points is essential to making a successful contribution to the charity as a trustee. They're also at the heart of how the charity promotes itself and accounts to the public."

NCVO (The National Council for Voluntary Organisations) suggests that your trustee induction programme should include the following (explained in more detail below):

  • Meetings with and introductions to other trustees, employees, beneficiaries, service users, and stakeholders
  • Invitations to events, meetings and presentations
  • Documents for a comprehensive trustee induction pack
  • Buddying or coaching

Once the new member has accepted a place on the board, share key documents with them before the first meeting. It's helpful to create a checklist of these documents as you prepare to recruit.

Invite questions by offering meetings with the chair and 1 or 2 trustees, the CEO (or equivalent), and/or the finance person. These meetings should give opportunities to explain governing documents, management accounts, key policies, and other documents that underpin your organisation's leadership and governance. You could also provide opportunities to attend events or conferences related to your organisation's work (for example, heritage sector conferences, open days, and community events).

Nominate a board buddy or mentor from among your trustees and offer new members training or coaching. Consider the best match in terms of capacity and interpersonal skills to provide support as needed.

What should be in a trustee handbook?

A trustee handbook provides new board members with a basic introduction to their legal and regulatory responsibilities. While there are differences in laws and regulations across the 4 nations of the UK, the Charity Commission has set out the 'essential trustee' framework, which can be used as a reference for governance more generally.

Additionally, your handbook could include a link to the Charity Governance Code, which provides helpful guidance on 7 good governance principles. These are also relevant to charitable trusts, unincorporated associations, companies limited by guarantee, charitable incorporated organisations (CIO), or other legal forms, such as community interest companies (which are regulated by the Office of the Regulator of Community Interest Companies).

What should the trustee handbook structure include?

Below is a suggested structure for compiling your handbook.

For further reading, look at the Charity Commission’s recommendations on trustee welcome packs.

1. Introduction to your organisation: background, vision, mission and values

2. Governance structure (for example, Charitable Incorporated Organisation or registered charity) and regulators (for example, Charity Commission, Companies House)

3. Information about the board: current chair and trustee(s)

4. Copies of your governing documents

5. What a trustee does

6. Information on any trustee training and support offered

7. Board and sub-committee timings and frequency of meetings

8. Code of conduct

9. Register of interests

10. Key policies and where to find them (for example, safeguarding, equality, financial)

11. Contact list of individuals (CEO or equivalent, chair, other trustees, or senior professional team members if appropriate