For school boards, the past two and a half years have been more like firefighting than traditional governance. As we kick off a hopefully more settled school year, what’s next for trustees? Every independent school has a distinct vision and mission to focus leadership and governance, but research can provide a generative lens on governance practice that can help boards vastly increase their effectiveness.
Every few years, the nonprofit governance organization BoardSource conducts “Leading with Intent,” a study to investigate how nonprofit boards go about their work and what practices most correlate with success. Respondents include CEOs and board chairs from various sectors, including social services, human rights, health care, arts and culture, and education. The 2021 study revealed four key findings that should serve as conversation starters for independent school boards. To get the juices flowing, I have proposed some questions specific to the independent school context.
1. Boards are disconnected from the communities and people they serve. Almost half (49%) of chief executives responding to the BoardSource survey said that they did not have the right board members to “establish trust with the communities they serve.”
Trust in core U.S. institutions is at an all-time low.According to a recent Gallup survey, “confidence currently ranges from a high of 68% for small business to a low of 7% for Congress.” In a polarized society, such as what we are facing today, boards and heads must work together to enhance trust in their school communities. That begins with building a board that embraces the school’s values and incorporates the voices of the community in its deliberations and strategy setting.
Questions to ask:
- When people look at the makeup of the board, what does it say about what the school values? Is that in line with what the school says it values through its vision, mission, and value statements?
- Does the board include a diversity of voices? If not, what structures are available to change that (such as succession planning, advisory boards, task forces)?
- When debating strategic issues, does the board build trust by incorporating stakeholder voices in the board’s process of developing a comprehensive understanding of the issue and the options for addressing it?
- Does the board have a communications process to keep the community informed on key governance issues?
The answer to these questions may help focus board goals on structure and process for the coming years.
2. Boards that prioritize fundraising above all else when it comes to the board’s role do so at the expense of organizational strategy, relevance, and impact. Respondents that placed the highest level of importance on fundraising had lower ratings in several key areas of performance as compared to those that do not place such high importance on fundraising.
There is no doubt that fundraising plays an important role in the long-term sustainability of independent schools, but are trustees intentional about the intersection between fundraising and vision, mission, and values?
Questions to ask:
It is critically important for boards to set goals to drive their work, but do they have a process to ensure the right balance in those goals? For example, the board may consider using frameworks like the Balanced Scorecard to ensure that they are balancing financial effectiveness with other important measures. The Balanced Scorecard can help a board set strategy and evaluate success through four lenses: financial success, learning and growth, customer satisfaction, and organizational process effectiveness, asking these questions:
- How are the school’s vision, mission, and values incorporated into fundraising strategy?
- Is the board’s role in fundraising balanced by attendance to other mission-critical needs?
- What structures and processes are in place to ensure the right balance in how the board prioritizes its work?
- Have the head and board explored other ways to involve donors in the community other than board service?
In terms of donors on boards, trustees may want to look at alternative structures to ensure both board balance and engagement for donors. For example, in “Reimagining How to Engage Major Donors,” an article in the Spring 2021 issue of Independent School magazine, authors Anne-Marie Kee, Katie Pezoulas, and Shane Smyth from Lakefield College School (Canada) describe their process for exploring major donor engagement. As a result of their work, they created the new role of foundation trustee, which provided the school ongoing counsel, advice, and input on strategic matters. Other schools may have similar structures, often referred to as a “visiting board.”
- How do customers see us? (customer perspective)
- What must we excel at? (internal perspective)
- Can we continue to improve and create value? (innovation and learning perspective)
- How do we look to stakeholders? (financial perspective)
3. Boards and executives should reflect on what is prioritized in terms of board expectations and how time is spent. Do boards spend their time together on those things that matter most to the organizations’ short- and long-term success? BoardSource’s survey found that what boards think is important and how they spend their time is not necessarily correlated.
Questions to ask:
In a 2018 NAIS governance study, NAIS offered 15 school challenges and asked heads and trustees which they thought were most important to their school. Managing enrollment and recruiting, retaining, and compensating quality faculty were rated as the top two issues at that time. Boards may want to kick off the year by revisiting this list, adding any key issues they don’t see represented, and identifying the top three to five. Then ask, are head and board goals developed with these priorities in mind? How will the board use full board time, committee work, and potentially task forces to investigate and address? Does the board have a shared understanding of these issues? How will the board measure success in these arenas?
- As a school board kicks off its work for the year, has it engaged in a data-driven process to identify the key challenges and opportunities for both the year ahead and the longer-term that will inform goals?
- Does full-board and committee work prioritize those areas?
- Has professional development time been allotted to ensure a shared board understanding of the challenges and opportunities?
- Does the board use a consent agenda model to prioritize strategic and generative conversations?
4. The board chair’s leadership in ensuring clear expectations of board service seems to matter most when it comes to the board’s overall culture. BoardSource outlined in its report those elements that contribute to a healthy board culture, including the board chair’s ability to set clear expectations, encourage all voices to be heard, and the ability to resolve conflict.
There also are other elements that contribute to a healthy board culture such as trustee commitment to the mission, active listening, social time spent together, and the board taking collective responsibility for failures and mistakes. Is your school board intentional about its culture?
Questions to ask:
As boards welcome new members, consider scheduling a board retreat to discuss roles, responsibilities, expectations, and culture. In the 2018 governance survey, heads and boards reacted to 15 statements about how well the board exhibits various aspects of culture. At that time, both heads and trustees gave high marks to how well they listen to and respect each other, but much lower marks to spending social time together and furthering their learning and growth. Every school board should discuss how it can embed structures and processes that build governance muscle in these areas: consider using the list of culture elements from the NAIS study as a starting point.
- Are all trustees clear on roles and responsibilities?
- Does the board set annual goals, establish measures for success, and assess progress?
- Are all voices heard in board deliberations?
- Does the board prioritize spending time together?
As the BoardSource survey calls out, the most effective boards lead with intent. Given the complexity of the emerging landscape and the pressures on school leaders and trustees to balance so many short- and long-term needs, intentionality about how time is spent and on what will be more important than ever in the year ahead.