Boardroom: Supporting Trustees through Recruitment and Training

Spring 2020

By Rebecca Scherr

One of the most common questions about building a board of trustees is, “What is the right size?” The 2018 NAIS Governance Study identified the average size of independent school boards as 19. This is larger than the average for all nonprofit boards in the United States: 15. But there is no one right size—the right size is what works best for the needs of a particular school. What’s equally important to ask, however, is do we have the right people at the table?

Board members should not be selected just because they are parents, alums, or executives at local businesses who have donated to the school in the past. They must bring important and diverse skills, talents, and experience to bear on the growing challenges and demands confronting independent schools in the 21st century. Today, the best board composition reflects the strategic expertise, resources, and perspectives (past, present, and future) needed to achieve the school’s mission and strategic objectives.

To build and maintain an effective and high-performing board, schools must regularly assess their needs and performance, cultivate talent, and engage strong board members with a carefully designed and thoughtfully executed cycle of ongoing activities. 

Assess for Success

Before recruiting new members, it’s important to take stock of who’s currently on the board, which can be done with a board composition audit—an annual inventory of the makeup of the current board, which can be included in a board self-assessment or as a separate exercise. The governance committee should examine current demographics, skills, and occupations, as well as ethnic, religious, racial, gender, age, economic, and constituency diversity (see “A Seat at the Table”). By creating a grid or simply grouping board members by categories, a board can get a visual profile of its makeup; committee members can then use the profile to conduct a gap analysis, which will highlight recruiting priorities and can help create the board’s specific recruitment criteria—the skills, diversity, and characteristics they need in order to achieve the school’s vision.

The governance committee should ask: What diversity of perspective, race, socioeconomics, and the like does the school need in order to govern most effectively? What general attributes are desirable in all of our board members? What specific attributes are helpful to have represented in one or more members of the board, contributing to an overall balance of skills? Is the future board leadership on the board?

Recruit and Select

Recruiting priorities for boards should be different for every independent school, as each one has a different mission, vision, student body, strategic priority, and board. There are some highly desirable attributes for all board members—people who are able to think broadly, people understand the school’s mission and history, collegial team players who can discuss tough issues in a candid yet friendly manner. Boards also should consider the more specific skills, networks, and perspectives they might need to achieve their long-term goals. For example, a school starting a master plan for campus renovation or expansion might decide an architect, engineer, or contractor would be a strategic addition to the board.

The governance committee should develop a road map or matrix listing the essential criteria for new trustees. Different attributes, such as legal talent, the ability to get buy-in, or an understanding of school finance, for example, should be shared with all board members for input. To find individuals who meet the criteria, consider candidates from outside the school community—they can see the school through a different lens. Other sources for potential board candidates include current trustees, volunteers to the school, education leaders from other schools and organizations, professionals in the community, other nonprofit boards, organizations representing racial/ethnic groups, and board training organizations.

Once a board has identified potential candidates, the governance committee must then cultivate candidates, engaging them in conversations about the board. This helps introduce, energize, and educate the potential candidate about the mission of the school, the board and responsibilities of board members, and key milestones the board is working toward. It also helps the committee gain a deeper sense for whether this individual would be a good fit for the board.

When cultivating and recruiting, it’s crucial for governance committee members to work from the same master matrix that records action and progress, as there may be multiple people interviewing candidates at once. There are many ways to cultivate candidates, including the person on routine communications, inviting them to school events, holding one-on-one meetings, and inviting them to serve on task forces and committees. Governance committees should create a cultivation or recruitment plan for each candidate and recognize that not every candidate is ready to be a trustee the first time the idea is proposed. It may take one or two years to make the “ask.”

Train and Engage

While board members should already have received some orientation through the recruiting and cultivation process, a comprehensive orientation at the start of their official term goes deeper and provides ample opportunity to answer questions. An annual new trustee orientation is the foundation of good governance practice, ensuring that board members are equipped to make strategic decisions.

Sometimes schools ignore the orientation process, assuming that new board members are already well-acquainted with the school. That is a mistake, as it can signal that taking time to learn is not valued by the board. It can also leave new trustees with significant information gaps. A large proportion—perhaps the majority—of new trustees are new to the independent school world. The governance committee is responsible for creating, delivering, and evaluating an orientation process. While such training should be mandatory for new trustees, it is helpful for the entire board to review portions of this material from time to time.

Each board’s orientation will be different depending on its needs and strategic direction, but general orientation topics should include
  • NAIS Principles of Good Practice for Boards and Trustees, which provide guidelines for positive interactions and define high standards and ethical behavior in key areas of school operations;
  • school-specific board policies and procedures;
  • board-head/staff relations;
  • issues facing independent schools in general and the school in particular;
  • understanding nonprofit financial reports; and
  • the annual board calendar. 

Continued Learning

Effective governance can’t occur without effective board engagement—and engagement is much more than board members showing up at meetings. Effective boards create a culture of continual assessment and commitment to board professional development. Generally, the governance committee oversees ongoing board professional development, which should be tied to annual board goals. For example, if the board adopts a goal to develop a five-year financial plan, professional development throughout the year can focus on issues such as
  • a comprehensive review, analysis, and discussion of the school’s financial trends over the past decade;
  • a presentation on changing demographic and economic trends in the region that can affect the school’s financial health;
  • research on and discussion of new school financial models; and
  • a presentation on the competitive landscape for independent schools in that region.
High-performing independent school boards work hard to stay effective. “Structuring the board for efficiency, development, and innovation is key to a healthy board,” says Donna Orem, NAIS president. “They’re really looking at how they operate, what kinds of structures they use, in terms of committees and task forces, and how they prize innovations in those operations.”

A Seat at the Table

Boards of trustees have an increasing commitment to diversity in their student body, faculty, and administration. But when it comes to their own diversity, boards often struggle to achieve representation based on racial, ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic background or sexual orientation or gender identity. Consider the following steps to achieve a more diverse board composition:
  • Be sure the board chair, head, and chair of the governance committee agree that having a more diverse board is crucial to your ultimate effectiveness and that they will exercise strong, visible leadership on the issue.
  • Conduct professional development with your board to help members better understand issues of equity and inclusion.  
  • Hold a board conversation and ask, Does our board composition reflect the community we serve? Does it reflect the kind of community the school wishes to become? Are we missing perspectives that could expand our thinking? 
  • Develop a plan for change. Develop a task force organized to create the plan and guide the board in its implementation. Outside consultants can be helpful because they have expertise in diversity and change issues, and they are also objective.
  • Assign trustees from underrepresented groups mentors who are experienced board members and who are committed to equity and inclusion for the board. 
  • Once the new trustees are on board, truly welcome them and the new perspectives they may bring. Celebrate the fresh ideas, problem-solving skills, and resources that are part of your trustee team.
Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.