Through the years of a professional career one usually has an opportunity to serve on all kinds of boards. If one serves on enough to compare orientation and education programs, one soon learns they are "all over the lot." Board initiations extend over a broad spectrum from being thrust into the fray without a clue to a three-day orientation that is comparable to a parade with two speeds, slow and stop. Somewhere in between is a happy medium.

A busy potential member might find it helpful to ask a few questions before saying yes or no to serving on a board. Among such questions are:

  • What type of board is it? Advisory, decision-making, fund-raising, etc. Determine where the decisions are made--at the board level, executive committee or somewhere else. This helps prevent frustration through misunderstanding in the future. 
  • What is the time commitment for meeting preparation, committee responsibilities, length of board meetings, and number of meetings per year? If this is clear in the beginning, it is easier to make the right decision. 
  • What are the institution's mission, philosophy and values? Determine if there are irreconcilable conflicts prior to a commitment.

Assuming the decision is yes, let's move on to board orientation/education where responsibility for a valuable, timely presentation is borne by those conducting the orientation or continuing education. The individual or team carrying out the orientation or continuing education should:

1. Know the level of knowledge and background of the group attending. Format the program around what they need to know rather than presenting a standard program. If this is an educational institution's board, the CEO of the local college requires a different orientation than the owner of a small business selling widgets. Avoid boredom. Don't overwhelm.

2. Distribute a packet of information prior to or at the orientation. Go through it briefly. This is great as resource material for future reference, but don't expect the person to absorb it all at once. A week before the first board meeting, review the immediate past minutes and the agenda of topics to be discussed at the meeting so newcomers don't feel up to their ears in alligators and sinking fast.

3. Give board members an opportunity to evaluate the orientation a few months later, after their feet are wet. You may be amazed at the helpful suggestions for the future.

4. Have different people present portions of the orientation or education program. Appropriate videos and other audiovisual material, plus stand-up activities, add variety . . . and spice.

5. Keep the program as informal and comfortable as possible. Announce up front there's no such thing as a dumb question. Reinforce the importance of questions when they are asked. Of course, there is a delicate balance between a legitimate question and the spotlight grabber, but that's another article (perhaps "How to Keep a Meeting on Track and Still Have Friends").

6. Periodically touch base with board members to see what information/education they would find helpful for present or future board deliberation. Before starting something new or innovative, run it past the board. Their questions and suggestions may help work out the kinks--and if you sell it to the board, chances are good you can sell it to the public and the potential audience. Often board members know the political and social environment better than the institution, and they can be helpful in assuring the success of the venture.

7. Present educational material related to a topic under discussion at the beginning of or during the meeting. Putting it at the end of the meeting can give a subtle message that it is tacked on and not of great importance. You may find your presentation being made to a small number of not-so-busy board members. 

Educational sessions do not necessarily have to be designated "continuing education." It can be part of the agenda under the heading of a report, background for a current discussion, or an explanation of a topic appearing currently in the media.

Board orientation and continuing education is not a chore; it's an opportunity. It can make board discussions and decisions more fruitful, creative, and all-encompassing. It can stretch minds and serve as a forum for collaboration between operations people and board members. Well-informed board members can be your best advocates in the community at large. Solid orientation and timely educational topics can be a valuable asset when carried out well. If not, they can be deadly. 

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