From the March/April 2018 Net Assets magazine
“What problem are we trying to solve?” This is often a good question to ask, but it certainly wasn’t in this case. It was a school trustee’s response to a suggestion by the governance committee chair that the entire board might benefit from some board development training.
The development of a board as a leadership group is not a problem to be solved, it’s an investment that schools must make overtime to be able to draw dividends when trustee leadership is needed. It is integral to high-level governance. If a school crisis occurs without this investment, it’s too late, and a school is substantially less likely to govern through it successfully.
In my role, I’ve had the unique opportunity to be a fly on the wall at numerous board meetings. With broad brushes and generalization, I’ve observed several characteristics of boards. The “glorified PTA board” believes their job is to report every parent concern, item of gossip or school critique, expecting either the school administration, or, worse, the board chair to respond. The “extension of staff” board is comprised of experts (often in finance, marketing or communications) from other industries whose knowledge and wisdom are routinely drawn upon to compensate for staff deficiencies. They don’t just oversee staff work, they perform it. I’ve also observed the “checkbook board” take out their personal calculators to double-check the math on a school’s financial reports.
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Finally, the “governing board” understands their unique role as the temporary caretakers of the school’s mission and vision. They hold a long view of the finances, programs and strategies that can ensure the school’s ability to educate generations of students; they invest in the resources, training and development necessary to achieve these ends; and they support the school’s senior administrators without becoming administrators themselves.
If my bias is not obvious, I will tell you that it is the fourth board that every independent school needs. Moreover, it is this role that only a school’s board of trustees can perform successfully — and only if they have a collective and shared understanding that this is, in fact, their job. But that understanding is just the start. Governance is not something that is baked and done. It is organic and requires constant attention, time and resources to yield the best results. And although a board largely serves as a stabilizing force for an organization, by design it is infused with dynamic energy in the form of new directors and leadership on an ongoing basis.
Q: What was your first board experience?
A: I was a staff member at the National Association of Home Builders, one of the biggest trade associations in the country. It has one of the biggest boards of directors too — around 1,500 at the time. Little did I know how unique that was, or that for the majority of my career I would work with boards numbering between 20 and 25, a size I prefer much more.
Q: How can 20 smart people meet many times each year and still not collectively understand their role?
A: I think most trustees believe they know what “governance” is and what a “board member” is supposed to do. But that understanding must be shared by the complete board through intentional discussions about the role of the board overall as well as the role trustees should play on behalf of that specific school. Unfortunately, in my experience, most trustee selection processes are over-engineered, whereas orientation and development — where these conversations should take place — are too often an afterthought for many nonprofits, not just independent schools.
Q: What are your go-to resources for governance development?
A: I have found BoardSource’s resources and conferences very valuable, and NBOA Board members would concur. NAIS offers many resources valuable to the unique issues independent school trustees face regarding governance. And NBOA recently delivered a three-hour workshop for ISACS on the fiduciary role of trustees.
Most independent school boards are comprised of smart, successful, well-intentioned individuals who seek to make valuable and meaningful contributions. If your board falls short of its ideals, I encourage you to invest in the right areas. For starters, reflect on each of your board’s protocols and customs, and ask, “How does this function support the board’s work and advance its strategic view?” Create and share board job descriptions, committee charges and annual goals. Find ways to advance board development throughout the year by circulating articles, examining case studies or sharing a best practice.
Good governance isn’t achieved by the board of trustees with the most impressive resumes or the greatest wealth. Nor is it achieved by frequent meetings and complicated committee structures. As your school strives to demonstrate and improve upon its value proposition in ways that support its distinct mission, your board of trustees has a critical and unique role to play. For the good of your school, redouble your commitment to trustee onboarding and development.
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