My first experience as a charter school board member was similar to a middle school dance. I walked in, looked for someone I knew, and sat down. I NEVER hoped for an ice breaker activity, but for the first time in my life, something corny like a get-to-know-you-game may have done the trick.  

When I was elected to the board, I was also elected as the Secretary. Can I share with you what a challenge it was to take meeting minutes when I didn’t know the majority of the board members names? I would be lying if I were to tell you that I was courageous enough to ask someone their name after they made a motion or a strong statement that should be included in the meeting minutes. Instead, I just typed a description and planned to ask the Executive Director later. One would think by the second meeting this went away, but no. It took me until the second quarter of meetings to get most of everyone’s name, roles, and history with the board.

I vowed then as the Secretary and later as the Governance Chair that the next round of board members would not have the same experience. I scheduled a pre-meeting get together and pulled together some baked goods, snacks and drinks. However, only two board members showed up early enough, and we didn’t have the experience that I wanted them to have. I still made sure that I knew their names and that they met as many members as possible when they first came in. In the third meeting, one of our top recruits interrupted a challenging discussion by saying,“You know. I still don’t know all of the board members names, and after that first meeting, I just about quit.” I looked at her with great shame. That was my job, and I blew it. We never were able to bring her back into create the culture we desired to have, and her term actually ended early. A new board member needs more support and clarity than I provided. The job is fuzzy to begin with. Let’s not forget that most of our board members already have a full time job. We have to bring potential board members onto the board with a clear picture if we want them to stick around and be effective. In spite of this, I am about to begin my fourth year as a board member, second as a chair, and sadly, we are about to make our new members once again connect the dots on their own unless something changes in the next two weeks.

There are many excuses of why board members do not receive orientation. Most join in July, and it is a struggle for some boards just to get a quorum. Some meet for the first time at a retreat, and spending four to eight hours with everyone is assumed to be enough. It doesn’t matter the situation. If you want to be average, then continue to meet status quo. If you want to be great, then you need to start being more intentional with everything you spend your time on. Charter schools that are highly effective have highly engaged board members. Charter schools that are underperforming or failing have very little context, information and commentary regarding effective governance. The assumption is everyone knows how to be a board member, and you’ll continue to learn through attending board meetings.

In 2017, a survey by Heidrick & Struggles and George Mason University of more than 500 nonprofit board members shows how a lack of formal onboarding processes hampers board effectiveness.

  • Only 45 percent say their organization had a “defined on-boarding process” when they joined the board.
  • Only 46 percent say their onboarding experience prepared them to be an effective board member.
  • While a large proportion of respondents say those orientations effectively cover matters, such as the mission of the board (92 percent) and board responsibilities (83 percent), a substantially smaller proportion say they were trained on the strategic plan (67 percent), the board decision-making process (60 percent), and evaluation of the CEO (32 percent).
  • 68 percent of respondents say the board focuses on where the organization should be in five years’ time.

In my six years of working as a consultant for charter school boards, I would estimate that those numbers far exceed the reality here in North Carolina. In order to have a long term success as a public charter school, charter schools need board members who are engaged, inspired, and understand how to help.

I know I fell into the the trap of thinking, “Of course they know why they are here. Why would they have joined otherwise?” In reality, we need to set the right expectations for these really important people who are going to guide the future of the organization. Remember, leadership is influence, not a title. If new members are not pulled into the right situation, they might be uncertain what is expected of them and become reluctant to become engaged. As a result, the lack of orientation may stand in the way of boards taking the riskier actions that can help the organization in the future. Especially if the school’s board is currently struggling.

What Does Board Member Orientation Look Like?

Who should orient new members? Each board gets to decide this. Typically, it is a combination of the governance committee, the board chair, school leader, and fundraising head.

What does orientation look like? Orientation comes in multiple phases.

  1. Create a clear recruitment, interview, and selection process.
    1. Click here to download a copy of our board recruitment plan. This open sharing of the roles and responsibilities, the expectations and a little background of where the school is and where it is going.
  2. Schedule a meeting with some key members of the board and the school leader.
    1. During this meeting, you can share with the newly appointed members how the agenda is developed and strategies are implemented, who is responsible for what activities, how decisions are made, and what values drive decision-making. The school leader can also share the school’s mission, core values and goals for the upcoming school year. Non-profit specialist Non-profit specialist Joan Garry has created a simple list for board orientation. She believes the point of this meeting is to make sure new board members feel the following:
      1. Well informed about their role;
      2. Generally well informed about how the organization operates;
      3. Who’s who in the organization;
      4. A few key accomplishments of the organization as they begin to tell friends, family and colleagues about their new opportunity and become a brander of the school;
      5. Ready to contribute on day one;
      6. Impressed that they have joined a professional organization; and,
      7. Valued and appreciated.
  3. Teach new board members and talk about the difficult topics. It is critical to bring up to speed the new members about key decisions that have been made or need to be made in their first meetings. In my first meeting, we were voting on a multi-million dollar facility project that I had no background information on. I had no verification that due diligence had been done.
    1. Joan Garry notes in her blog, “Board members who walk through the doors feeling valued are your most engaged and productive board members. They are your future leaders.” As a board leader, you create the culture you desire to see. By spending time on the front end preparing, you are most likely certain to save time on the back end.
    2. Depending on the timing of this meeting, there might be some key members of the management team on campus. Take the time to introduce them to the new members and provide them an understanding of their role and how critical they are to the school’s success.
  4. Review the Board Member Binder. During the meeting, provide them with a copy of a Board Member Binder. This binder contains the most critical documents that a board member should know and understand, including the bylaws, governance policies, meeting schedule, and strategic plan. It can also contain a history of the school, why it exists, and where the organization is compared to its ultimate vision.
    1. Download a copy of our recommendations for your binder here. This is a great tool that can be passed down from board member to board member.
  5. Set up a meeting between new members and members rolling off the board. Every board member should work to replace themselves with a member who has similar skill sets and experiences. Whether that new member sat on a standing committee the year before, or are brand new to the organization, the rolling off board member could spend time mentoring the new board member, walking them their board member binder, and sharing some of the key decisions that occurred during their term. This helps the new member have a better understanding of the WHY behind all past decisions and provides some context for upcoming decisions.
  6. Make the first meeting matter for the new board member. During the first board meeting, make sure there is a time to go around the table and remind everyone of who they are, why they are a board member, the skill sets they bring to the board, and what they hope to see accomplished during their tenure.

Regardless of how you as an organization choose to orient, it will occur. The question is, wouldn’t you want it to occur through positive, purposeful, and intentional action? By being intentional, you will get your board working on the important issues faster and more effectively. If you’re running a business, such as a public charter school, and only 51 percent of your board knows really what you’re doing and feels good at it, that’s a formula for a challenging year. .

Don’t have a professional development plan for your board? We have you covered. Enroll today in our online and on demand governance training program Navigate and begin strengthening your governance practices today for a better tomorrow.

This blog was written by Dr. Thomas Miller, Leadership Coach, Speaker and Trainer with Leaders Building Leaders. If you found this content valuable, please share it.

If you want to learn how you can more effectively lead your school, then reach out to me at for a complimentary discovery session. You create the agenda; you bring the challenges. Let me be your thought partner.

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