The recent Association of Governing Boards study of theological schools' governing boards found that most schools provide some sort of orientation for new members. The orientation takes various forms. Some schools provide campus tours; some schedule a one-on-one briefing with the president, the board chair, or both; some hold a special session for trustees. Some, one would hope, do all these things. And some--28 percent, according to the study--provide orientation materials or manuals.

An informal survey of a dozen schools that do send materials to new members did not reveal much creativity. Most schools seem to use materials at hand--catalogues, newsletters, annual reports, and the like. These documents are important, but they are not nearly enough for someone who is filled with the enthusiasm of a new task begun. Board members deserve to know the institution with which they've aligned themselves, and to have the best resources available for piecing together that knowledge.

1. Your school's mission statement, constitution, and bylaws.
New drivers must demonstrate their knowledge of the rules of the road. Trustees can't do their work without these documents. And it might not be enough to just present them--these documents sometimes use rather arcane language. A glossary probably would help.

2. History of the school and its board. 
Some trustees are loyal graduates of the schools they serve. Many are not, and they need to know the ground upon which they're building. Even those who know the school in some other contexts need to encounter some board history. St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, has been working very hard at board development over the last ten years; their orientation manual includes two pages on the highlights of the process.

3. Trustee responsibilities. 
Ideally, potential board members are educated about what is expected of trustees before they accept the position. But it would be a worthwhile exercise for new trustees to develop their own list and compare it to one already in use. Some schools are extremely detailed in their list of expectations. Others distill the expectations down to, say, ten pithy points. In either case, be explicit. St. Vladimir's requires "placement of the seminary in the first position, or at least the second position, in terms of volunteer and philanthropic commitments." That's helpful specificity.

4. Previous board minutes and financial information. 
This current history enables new board members to participate quickly, especially if the information is put in context. Some boards have experienced members sit with newcomers at the first meeting to help steer them through unfamiliar territory. It might be helpful to meet mentors before the meeting as well.

5. Trustee roster, committee list, and schedule. 
Goes without saying, right? A trustee can't work alone, and needs to know who's doing what. Include information about the members' length of service and outside involvements. And provide a few words about the responsibilities of the various committees.

6. Bibliography.
This idea comes from St. Vladimir's. Its list of recommended readings includes classics that should be in the hands of every trustee, and a variety of materials from helpful groups. They note that everything on their list is available at their development office. There's always more to learn. Trustees appreciate being pointed in useful directions.

The Effective Board of Trustees by Richard P. Chait, Thomas P. Holland and Barbara E. Taylor, New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Boardroom Verities: A Celebration of Trusteeship with Some Guides and Techniques to Govern By by Jerold Panas, Chicago: Precept Press, 1991. 

Nonprofit Board Answer Book: Practical Guidelines for Board Members and Chief Executives by Robert Andringa and Ted Engstrom, BoardSource, 1997 (pgs. 127 to 132).

Building Effective Boards for Religious Organizations: A Handbook for Trustees, Presidents and Church Leaders by Thomas P. Holland and David C. Hester, Jossey-Bass, 2000 (pgs. 198 to 203).

The Strategic Board: The Step-by-Step Guide to High Impact Governance by Mark Light, John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Other In Trust Articles on Board Orientation

  • Bringing the Outsiders In: Planning for a Healthy Focus on a Board's Process
  • Bringing New Members onto the Board: Good Orientation Is the Key to Settling Them in Fast
  • Back to School for New Board Members: Integrating Training into the Trustees' Agenda

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