Hey my name is Tom Miller and I have been a consultant, trainer and coach for charter school boards since 2012. I have also been a board member since 2015 and there is one thing I have found to be true…
Here is what I mean.
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 hope 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 and Chair of the Governance Committee (huge mistake!). 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 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.
During our third meeting of the year, one of our top new members 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.”
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 she resigned before her term fully ended. A new board member needs more support and clarity than I provided.
The job of a charter school board member 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. There are many excuses for why board members do not receive proper orientation, but none of them are more important than building clarity of why you are here and what is your role as a board member.
I believe that public charter schools that are highly effective have highly engaged board members and clarity on how they should spend their time in meetings.
I also believe that public charter schools that are underperforming or failing have disengaged and sometimes toxic board members. Their meetings have very little context, hardly discuss important information and schedule little commentary around what regarding effective governance looks like.
There is a large assumption gap in charter school governance. The assumption is once elected, everyone knows how to be a board member. Your training comes "on the job".
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.
In my eight 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 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 trap of thinking, “Of course they know why they are here. Why would they have joined otherwise?”
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.
Let me answer a few common questions about board member orientation.
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. Basically, whatever strategic goals you have in place, the new member should have an understanding of the why and how around those goals.
What does orientation look like? Orientation comes in multiple phases.
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. .
If you don’t have a professional development plan for your board we have you covered.
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This blog was written by Dr. Tom Miller. Charter school consultant, trainer and coach.
If you want to create a clear vision for the current and long term your success for the charter school you lead or govern, we specialize in strategic retreats to ensure the board understands their role, sets their priorities and creates an effective and engaging committee structure. Email me at [email protected] to set up your next retreat.
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