Governing boards generally understand that effective orientation is an essential part of incorporating new trustees into the group quickly. But most boards overlook the importance of orienting new members to "internal" matters--trusteeship and the board--and instead move immediately to orientation about the institution: the school's organizational chart, strategic plan, and balance sheet, and touring the facilities.

Yet the functioning of the board and the role trustees play are the aspects of the position least likely to be familiar to new board members, even those who have been trustees elsewhere. Each board has its own history, traditions, culture, and chemistry; a key goal of an orientation should be to make these "unwritten rules" as explicit as possible. The program should answer questions most prospective trustees would not even think to ask. Is it a violation of group norms to miss meetings, to arrive late, or to leave early? What should I do if I disagree (maybe strenuously) with the president, a senior staff member, a board committee, or the board? What do I do with grapevine information from faculty or students? How should I handle calls from the press or from elected public officials? Can I contact senior staff directly, or should I go through the president? Are there any taboo topics? Any cliques within the board? How does the board feel about trustees doing business with the institution, even if the conflict-of-interest guidelines are heeded? The easiest way to decide what to cover is to ask present trustees one question: "What do you know now that you wish you had known when you joined the board?" If newcomers are provided with that information at the outset, most will feel comfortable much sooner as members of the group. In other words, orientation should: (1) help new members understand the board's norms and preferred protocol of behavior; (2) explain how the board really works; and (3) illustrate, by the very nature of the program, that there are no secrets or forbidden questions.

In contrast, when boards duck significant issues, problems can ensue. On one college's board, for instance, some trustees believe that they have an entitlement, in effect, to certain student admissions slots, or at least to great sway over "special" cases. Other trustees painfully avoid advocacy for any candidates. If and when this board learns, as the president already knows, that some trustees presume to wield great influence while others believe that individual admission decisions should be beyond the board's purview, rifts within the board are likely to widen. The source of the problem is that the trustees have failed to delineate at orientation or elsewhere their expectations of each other.

Orientation to the School
Beyond learning about the ways of the board itself, of course, new members need an introduction to the school they have agreed to serve. In this second portion of the orientation program, trustees acquire the basic knowledge every board member should possess, such as the mission and history of the institution, the hallmarks of the organization's culture (especially as contrasted with corporate culture), the nature of the competitive environment, the institution's comparative advantages, the sources and uses of funds, the distribution of power and authority, and the dynamics and economics of institutional productivity. Unfortunately, many orientation programs are consumed by comparatively less important information such as a detailed review of the board's bylaws, an extensive tour of the physical plant, or a lengthy elaboration of the organization chart.

How can the board's committee on trusteeship discover what new trustees truly need to know? Ask past and present trustees. The design of a trustee orientation program could begin with a one-question survey of current and former trustees: "What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first joined the board?" The answers to this question should constitute a significant component of the curriculum to acquaint new trustees with the institution. With a "syllabus" organized around these responses, orientation programs will provide relevant material and shorten the "start-up" phase for neophytes on the board. As one institution's CEO noted about an orientation so replete with knowledge that even experienced trustees regularly attended the program, "the orientation provided the equivalent of a year's worth of service for new trustees."

While current and former board members are particularly well equipped to recommend what newcomers need to know, the self-declared information needs of new trustees should not be overlooked. If asked, new board members will cite areas where a "crash course" would be helpful. When actually offered the chance to identify knowledge gaps, newcomers to college and university boards have requested, for example, a tutorial in fund accounting, an invitation to shadow a professor for a day or two, and an introduction to the performance metrics or yardsticks used to assess a university's competitive position.

Although some aspects of orientation--and trustee education more generally--should be conducted face to face, other segments might be provided by audiotapes, videotapes, or even in electronic format, accessible by computer. Once developed, such resources dramatically reduce the need to start afresh with each orientation program.

Finally, boards should realize that orientation programs need not be only for new trustees. Some boards expect all trustees to attend the new-member orientation (and most do), both as a way to welcome newcomers and as a way to be updated and "re-educated." Several other boards tap current and even former trustees to present portions of the orientation program--another nice touch to acquaint trustees with one another and to instill a sense of community and continuity within the board.

Ongoing Education
Trustee education cannot be confined to the orientation program. Instead, there must be a continuous process that offers advanced knowledge for the entire board and specialized knowledge for various trustee committees. Educational efforts for the whole board must be germane to the institutional strategy and the board's concerns. If the content misses the mark--no matter how clever the format--the value of the instruction and trustee enthusiasm for the process will plummet.

How can relevancy be assured? As with orientations, just ask. Senior staff and trustees in leadership positions should periodically poll the entire board to elicit topics and issues on which veteran trustees may wish to accumulate more intellectual capital. One college's board asks all trustees, as part of an annual self-evaluation, "What do you need to know in order to be a more valuable member of this board?" A typical response: "We need to be better educated about the institution's finances, student performance, the environment of the university, and academic quality indicators." Other institutions incorporate into an evaluation form, completed after each board meeting, questions about whether the trustees lacked vital knowledge or information to address the issues at hand.

The board of one school adopted a still more inventive approach: a "pop quiz" that asked trustees thirty factual questions about the school. The quizzes were self-administered and the results were private. Questions addressed enrollments, gender balance, curriculum requirements, faculty award winners, the value of the endowment, the median faculty salary, and the number of staff. The purpose of the exercise was to help trustees assess their knowledge of the school and to gently prod individuals with low scores to request programs and activities to become better informed.

Whatever the particular techniques, once the board's educational needs are clarified and connected to strategic priorities, the institution can design appropriate responses.

Rituals of Installation
Colleges and universities are replete with ceremonies designed to welcome and educate new students (freshman orientation), to inform and inspire (convocation), to celebrate academic achievement (graduation), and to commemorate new leadership (presidential inauguration). Other nonprofits mark performances, openings, and other institutional accomplishments with formal celebrations. It is especially appropriate in institutions that derive so much meaning from ceremony that a board adopt rituals to convey the meaning of trusteeship and to welcome new trustees into the stream of institutional history.

Some college boards have developed installation ceremonies and other traditions to welcome new trustees and to symbolize the significance and equality of membership in the group. At one college, the board asks each new member to respond formally to a series of commitment questions. The new trustee is then introduced to the board by the senior board member who has been appointed his or her "mentor."

At another college, the board asks each newcomer to present orally a brief autobiography, with special emphasis on personal interests and previous service to the institution. The new trustee then signs a book that includes the names of all trustees who have served on the board since the institution was founded.

Many effective boards extend the impact of orientation by appointing a mentor or coach, an experienced board member, to guide the new trustee during his or her first year in office. The practice sends a strong message to new trustees: "We want you to feel welcome. We want you to learn what you need to know in order to become, as quickly as possible, a fully contributing member of the group." Mentors are particularly helpful to unravel the intricacies of institutional history and to interpret the organizational culture to a new trustee. Said one mentor: "Occasionally, people in the know--maybe including me--talk in shorthand, and it gets in the way of cohesiveness because it leaves out the people who are less experienced on the board."

This article is adapted from Improving the Performance of Governing Boards, by Richard P. Chait, Thomas P. Holland, and Barbara E. Taylor, published by The Oryx Press, 4041 North Central at Indian School Road, Phoenix, AZ 85012-3397. Copyright 1996 by the American Council on Education and The Oryx Press. Reprinted by permission. 

Other In Trust Articles on Board Orientation

  • Bringing the Outsiders In: Planning for a Healthy Focus on a Board's Process
  • Essential Orientation Materials: Six Basics for the New Trustee's Packet
  • Back to School for New Board Members: Integrating Training into the Trustees" Agenda
  • Top Topics
    Roles & Responsibilities
    Board Essentials

    Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

    Advertise With Us

    Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

    Learn More