Blog Viewer

Governance That Bridges the (Social) Distance

By Jeffrey Shields posted 10-06-2020 10:46 AM


CEO Notebook |

Do your school’s governance structures support the kind of strategic work boards of trustees need to undertake now, when independent schools are at a crossroads?

Jeff Shields headshot
Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

The NBOA Board of Directors convened last week for our fall meeting. Like you and your schools’ boards of trustees, we are charged with conducting good nonprofit governance in a socially distant videoconference setting. All of us have important work to do.

No doubt you are among the many schools that have spent thousands of unbudgeted dollars on improved air filtration systems, PPE, plexiglass and possibly testing to ensure you are providing the safest learning community possible. Your board may have grappled with difficult financial questions, including “Do we or don’t we accept PPP funds?” “Should we increase our endowment draw?” and “What is the best way to responsibly increase financial aid dollars for our students and families to help them get through this difficult time?” There are more questions to come.

As school leaders, trustees should add strategic value to the institution they are serving AND those of us on staff should provide a meaningful volunteer experience for each trustee. It’s critical that our schools can rely on our trustees to think ahead, act resourcefully, ensure our communities remain safe and provide world-class education for generations to come. As I reflect on my work with the NBOA board, I continue to believe that what was true before the pandemic is true now, but perhaps amplified. Good governance requires the support of sound structures and processes, attention to agenda development and meeting design, as well as understanding trustees are volunteers.

Governance Structure

It remains in our best interest to review our governance processes and committee structures to ensure they are built to support agility and the strategic work our schools need today, especially in the current environment of a pandemic and as we look to the future. It’s past time to liberate ourselves from processes that don’t support today’s governance reality. Meeting frequency, for example, does not equate to governance efficacy. What would you and your school leadership colleagues do with the time gained if you weren’t preparing for – or taking action from – the number of full board or committee meetings slated only to turn around and prepare for the next?

And when a business officer shares that their finance committee is “in the weeds,” my first question is, “What’s on your agenda?” Trustees will discuss, for the most part, what we put on the agenda. How do we as administrators work with our board volunteer leadership to both prioritize what is most important and discuss it at the right altitude? Agenda development must reflect both concepts so that our boards and committees can focus on what is most important to their role and not on school operations.

Pandemic Considerations

If you pare back reports, you don’t have to lose important information; the material might be included in pre-reading, or even a pre-video, so that your time together can be spent on discussions important to the mission of your school.

While preparing for both the spring and fall NBOA board meetings, we gave ample thought to adjusting the agenda to suit a videoconference environment. Key for us was understanding the amount of time we ask from our board members. Most adults can’t focus longer than 45 minutes on a presentation, so we incorporated many smaller breakout discussions and minimized long reports to the full board. If you pare back reports, you don’t have to lose important information; the material might be included in pre-reading, or even a pre-video, so that your time together can be spent on discussions important to the mission of your school.

While we know our trustees are committed to the education delivered by our schools, many volunteer to engage with other parents and community leaders as well. Current circumstances make this challenging. Many of us are living, working and volunteering in the same space day after day, with the distractions of spouses or partners working in the same room, children in online school, and maybe even a nine-year-old miniature schnauzer that needs to be walked 4 times a day, as in my personal case! Others may be living alone and missing the some of the face-to-face opportunities they had to interact outside their home.

Limiting the time for board work should not mean limiting the personal connections that make being a trustee at your school rewarding. What do we need to do to engage and support our most important volunteers? We have heard about schools sending Starbucks cards for trustees to use during breakfast meetings or a Door Dash card for use during dinner meetings. You have shared ideas for virtual happy hours, where everyone makes the same cocktail, or a virtual wine and cheese reception where everyone receives a wine glass with your school logo on it. These small gestures matter, and they are appreciated. At our meeting, during our virtual board reception, we conducted an NBOA trivia contest and provided prizes for the winners. Get creative and ask your trustee colleagues how they would like to connect with each other in addition to conducting the important work of the board.

Managing the current crisis requires an “all hands-on deck” approach, our most strategic thinking, and dedicated time for important decision-making. Whether changes to your school’s governance approaches endure for the remainder of the pandemic or beyond, now is the time to make them.

jeff shields signature
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, October 6, 2020. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

Sign in to leave a comment