Research Insights: Findings from the Latest NAIS Governance Study

Spring 2020

By Amada Torres

Independent school leaders face many pressing issues. Both heads and board chairs must tackle enrollment management, keeping school affordable, marketing and branding the school, and more. Effective school boards that understand their role and institutions can best ensure the sustainability of their schools.

To examine the trends in board leadership and to find out how boards have evolved over time, NAIS has conducted the Governance Study—first in 2006 and again in 2012—and analyzed data on current board composition, policies and practices, challenges, board performance, as well as trends and changes in board leadership. Most recently conducted in 2018, many of the findings have remained the same. Comparisons over time have shown that: boards are more diverse by gender and by types of community members; the size has decreased from 22 members in 2006 to 19; more schools evaluate the head and board; more schools are setting annual goals for the head; and more schools are offering professional development for the board and formal orientation for new members.

For the 2018 study, a total of 468 heads and 393 board chairs at independent schools across the country participated. Two surveys, one for heads of school and one for board chairs, were sent to all member schools via email. Some of the surveys’ questions were the same. The study’s findings showcase the strength of the partnership between heads and boards in leading schools and reveal some areas for improvement for heads and boards to have better discussions. 

Key Insights

Relationships and culture. Eight in 10 heads of school report having a very or extremely strong and highly functioning partnership with their board chairs. Likewise, board chairs have a similar view of their relationship with their head of school. Heads were pleased with the overall performance of their boards with 70% of them being very or extremely satisfied.

However, the study uncovered areas in which board chairs had a more positive view of board culture than heads. The largest gaps were observed in areas such as “the board is a collaborative team that works well together toward a common goal;” “there is honest communication between board members;” and “board members share accountability and take collective responsibility for failures and mistakes.”

Board performance. Recognizing that school boards serve in a variety of roles, heads and board chairs were asked to rate the importance of various board responsibilities. In general, both groups identified “ensuring the financial sustainability of the school” and “thinking strategically as a board” as the top two roles for boards. However, there were notable misalignments; board chairs rated higher than heads the importance of their role in “assuring the quality of school offerings,” “monitoring school performance against strategic plan,” and “guiding and supporting the school head.” These gaps may cause some misunderstanding around the focus of the board and its priorities, so it’s necessary to address them before they affect board performance.

In terms of performance, it was encouraging to see that heads and board chairs rated their board performance highly on “ensuring the financial sustainability of the school,” the topic identified as the most important role for the board. But there was room for improvement on areas such as “thinking strategically as a board,” “selecting, compensating, and evaluating the head of school,” and “guiding and supporting the school head.” There were two items for which less than half of heads and board chairs rated the board as performing very well or extremely well: increasing board diversity (see Data Dive) and fundraising (while some schools may require all board members to make the school a priority in their charitable giving, board members also expected to help the school’s fundraising efforts as needed).

Board composition. In 2018, the average number of board members (including ex officio members) in independent schools was 19, larger than the 15-member average for all nonprofit boards reported by BoardSource in 2017. And while the “right” board size is what works best for the needs of a particular school, one factor to keep in mind is the effect it may have on school innovation. A large board means a greater pool of potential school donors, as well as higher visibility in the local community. But as a board’s size increases, it can experience group-dynamic problems. Schools need to monitor this closely to establish the optimum board size for their work.

Parents still accounted for almost half of board members, followed by past parents (24%) and alumni (22%). The number of external community representatives, who tend to be objective voices on the board, is on the rise (see “Who’s on the Board?” below).

Committees and policies. The average number of permanent committees was five. Sixty-seven percent of respondents indicated having between four and six committees, and 22% had more than six. Heads of schools were asked whether they have considered collapsing their committees into larger and more generative ones. Only a third of participants indicated that this change was being discussed or that they had already gone through this process.

Internal institutional policies are set by the board to ensure that a school’s operations are conducted appropriately. Nearly all school boards reported having approved written policies on conflict of interest, followed by investment and endowment. About 7 in 10 schools reported having written policies on sexual harassment and financial aid. With respect to previous years, more schools reported having written policies for property acquisition/disposition and technology, and nearly 60% now have a written policy on prevention of student abuse, which was not one of the categories listed in past surveys.

Member and chair terms. Three years continues to be the usual stated term for board members. Almost all schools indicated that board member terms are renewable, but schools seem to approach this issue differently, with 27% setting the renewable terms at one term, 22% at two terms, and 24% at three terms.

In contrast, 35% of schools had a two-year term for the chair and 32% reported a three-year term. Nearly 8 in 10 schools indicated that the board chair terms are renewable. There is some variety in limits on terms, with 28% of schools setting only one term, and 34% reported no limits.

Recruitment and orientation. In general, both heads and board chairs reported that the top factors considered when recruiting board members were passion for the school’s mission and desired skills. Sixty-five percent of heads said their boards invite potential trustees to serve on committees or task forces before inviting them to become a trustee. And more than 9 in 10 heads indicated their boards provide a formal orientation for new members.

Executive board sessions. In 2018, nearly all boards reported holding executive sessions: Nearly half of the boards said they hold this type of session only when needed, and half of executive sessions are held with or without the head as needed. Almost 8 in 10 boards hold executive sessions for the head’s evaluation, while more than half use them for sensitive legal issues. As for other reasons, some boards conduct executive sessions as part of every board meeting, while others use these sessions for self-evaluation or to discuss sensitive topics, such as staff or compensation issues.

Head and board evaluations. More than 7 in 10 heads reported that their boards set annual goals for them, and nearly all boards formally evaluate the head of school’s performance. The evaluation of the head of school is most likely to be conducted once a year. Similarly, about 9 in 10 heads indicated their board evaluates its own performance, which is most likely to happen once a year.

Board professional development. Eighty-five percent of heads indicated that their boards engage in professional development on a routine basis. The three most popular professional development tools were events sponsored by outside organizations; presentations by outside speakers; and professional development publications.

Head of school responsibilities. Both heads and board chairs were asked to select the top five responsibilities for heads of school. There was a clear agreement that ensuring the school’s financial well-being and instilling the climate and values of the school were a head’s primary responsibilities.

There were also some differences. Heads were more likely to stress the importance of long-range and strategic planning (73% of heads considered this to be among the top five responsibilities compared with 61% of board chairs) and working effectively with trustees (60% of heads and 35% of board chairs). On the other hand, heads put less importance on issues such as recruiting and hiring quality staff and faculty members (59% for heads and 82% for board chairs), and developing and implementing curriculum (8% for heads and 29% for board chairs). 

Next Steps

Some of these findings offer opportunities for board development and reflection. Below are some recommendations for schools to consider:

Invest in board culture. Work to cultivate trust, respect, and mutual accountability within your board by creating opportunities for your members to engage with each other in a way that deepens their understanding of each other and their shared commitment to the school’s work. 

Identify the main responsibilities of the board and assess performance. Ensure that every board member starts service with a firm understanding of the role and identify mechanisms to regularly reflect on overall performance as a board.

Discuss what commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity would look like for your board. Assess the impact of the board’s current diversity composition. How can your board bring the diverse perspectives, needs, feedback, and priorities of the different communities it serves?

Create standing committees only when there is an ongoing need for a particular board role. They should be aligned with appropriate board leadership roles and responsibilities and avoid duplicate staff functions.

Establish an annual evaluation as an opportunity to reflect on accomplishments and align future goals. The partnership between the board and the head relies on open communication about performance. The annual evaluation creates a regular opportunity to reflect on where the head has had success and where there may be challenges.

Cultivate a constructive partnership between the head and the board. The school relies on the leadership partnership between the board and the head. If they are not working well together, the school can suffer through a lack of strategic alignment, a toxic culture, or the inability to leverage the leadership potential of the board, the head, or both.
Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.