HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Building a Diverse, Philanthropic and High Functioning Governing Board
This article presents an expert map for the successful functioning of a professional, invigorated, well managed board.
Proper board governance begins with reviewing, and if appropriate, changing, the institution’s mission statement or by-laws. This should generate strategic, adaptive questions about the nature and quality of how the board functions.
More than ever before, boards of trustees are expected to function at a level of excellence that is equal to that which we expect from our nonprofit leadership and education programs. Today’s market demands greater accountability and professionalism from 501(c)(3)s. At the same time, there is significant competition among nonprofits to access the limited, known donor and volunteer resources in their communities. Even more challenging, especially during recessionary environments, independent schools face increased competition from public schools and charter schools for students.
Addressing these formidable challenges requires hard work and creativity, especially as they relate to effectively engaging our trustees when they are already overextended with their own personal, work and volunteer responsibilities. In order to successfully tackle these challenges, three basic conditions must exist or be created within the framework of our schools: a strong partnership between the president and the head; a thoughtful, documented governance infrastructure that will support a system for trustee training, engagement, and committee participation; and a pervasive “culture of philanthropy.”
In these uncertain times, trustees are searching for real meaning in their lives and are driven to organizations that operate professionally, demonstrate a proven positive impact on their constituencies, and share a common purpose and common values with fellow trustees. Operating in an environment through which, collectively and collaboratively, they can truly make a difference in helping the institution reach new heights, trustees tend to naturally become proud ambassadors and more generous supporters.
Active communication and mutual trust are two key components to a healthy partnership between the board president and the head. Establishing shared common goals and working collaboratively creates a welcome, united, productive environment devoid of posturing and competition. It also makes tackling the myriad challenges that we all face as trustees more enjoyable. The president and head have very different job descriptions, yet they share the same objective: to focus strategically on achieving the school’s mission. The president takes the “macro” approach and focuses on governance, succession, long term sustainability and overseeing the head’s performance, while the head focuses strategically on tactical educational programming, professional development, operations and finance. Nevertheless, they are interdependent—in order for one to be successful, the other must be successful, as well.
Equally important is the rapport between the president and head, including their willingness to be constructively critical of one another. Respectful disagreements and challenging inquiries between the president and the head will lead to a healthier institution. As advised through the sage words of my late grandfather, Rabbi Leo Jung, we can “agree to disagree agreeably.” Given the frequency of contact and communication between the president and head, it helps if the two enjoy working together. We should not understate the often implicit dimensions of a healthy, positive working partnership, including interpersonal dynamics between partners.
Governance Systems and Structures: Strengthening How We Govern
While the president-head relationship is critical for a school’s success, this partnership alone does not guarantee a thriving, high functioning board. Properly established governance infrastructures with concomitant high quality trustee experiences are equally important components necessary for establishing a high functioning board.
Effective Board Meetings
Our boards should be places where lay leaders in our community want to be, and where trustees need not question their decision to serve. Several ways we can ensure this are structural and systemic, and others involve hands-on human resource work with our trustees. Many of us have had experiences attending board meetings at which a particular trustee brought up issues that were either irrelevant to the topic being discussed or too personal to their individual circumstances. We may have questioned whether we were really contributing in a meaningful way to the organization, or asked ourselves whether we were experiencing personal growth from a particular board experience.
One of the ways to gain feedback about the board and also to ensure that every board member feels seen and valued is for the president and/or head to meet annually with every board member.
A meaningful trustee board meeting experience can be achieved by instituting simple basic measures. For example, starting and ending meetings on time, sending out agendas and committee reports in advance, and planning diverse agendas that incorporate a combination of information, education and strategic discussion components. Trustee attendance at board meetings should be mandatory, whenever possible. Assuming that a communicative and trusting relationship exists between the board and head, executive sessions following board meetings can be another effective tool for fostering trustee conversations and collegiality, in what could be considered a less intimidating environment after the school’s professional leadership have been dismissed.
Proper board governance begins with reviewing, and if appropriate, changing, the institution’s mission statement or by-laws. This should be more than a legal-technical process; it should generate strategic, adaptive questions that engage the entire board in conversations about the nature and quality of how the board functions.
Often, the most engaging work for board members happens in committees, which makes the effectiveness of committee work essential. Creating meaningful board committees spearheaded by dedicated leaders, establishing term limits and a well planned system for trustee selection, stewardship, evaluation and succession planning are critically important measures to implement. Active participation by trustees on board committees that have strategic goals aligned with the institution’s mission is another effective way to engage trustees so that they can become meaningful contributors to the school. Other methods for enhancing the trustees’ experience include instituting a formal orientation program, paying attention to board diversity, reengineering board meetings, orchestrating a strategic planning process approximately every three years, and instituting a system of evaluation, accountability, and feedback for all.
Trustee Development/Stewardship: Nurturing the People Who Govern
Board Profile and Recruitment
In order to provide a truly rewarding board experience for trustees, being mindful of trustee diversity is very important. This could mean not only religious diversity, but also regional, age, gender, professional and “feeder school” diversity. Receiving trustee insights and contributions from a multitude of perspectives provides a richer experience and offers greater comfort that the institution’s various constituents are well represented.
This kind of outreach and trustee diversification is critical if our schools hope to reach beyond their often narrow circles of influence and become more relevant to our broader communities, which is critical for expanding our funnel of prospective students and donors. In addition, the quality and diversity of trustees can also be a significant contributing factor to trustee satisfaction. One of the reasons trustees are motivated to attend board meetings and participate actively in committee work is because of the quality of people with whom they are working.
New Trustee Orientation
Implementing an informative trustee orientation program is an effective and efficient vehicle through which to welcome incoming trustees and one that is not difficult to orchestrate. Providing an information packet—complete with a trustee responsibility description, listing and backgrounds of fellow trustees, board minutes from the previous year, copies of the by-laws and mission statement, audited financial statements and the fiscal year budget, listing of committees and committee goals, annual board objectives, strategic plan, demand statistics, development statistics and board meeting dates for the year—enables new trustees to be adequately informed in advance of the first board meeting. On the orientation day, new trustees can receive brief 10-15 minute overviews from the directors of finance, institutional advancement, admissions, educational programming, and college counseling so that they can better appreciate the student experience and the operations of the school. It is also worthwhile to assign to each new trustee a veteran trustee “mentor.”
Just as having a sound strategic plan is vital to school sustainability, it is also a way to inspire board members, to shift them from managers to leaders and visionaries.
Implementing a strategic planning process, in which both trustees and school management participate, that links the school’s annual work with its mission and vision, often in conjunction with a board retreat, is a wonderful way to foster intensive strategic collaboration among trustees outside of their committee work and board meetings. By focusing on the long term educational, programming and development needs required to achieve long-term financial sustainability, trustees are carrying out their fiduciary responsibilities to the organization. When a consensus on these needs is reached, the longer-term vision will then clarify the school’s short-term annual priorities, which will have direct budgetary implications for the next fiscal year(s).
In the same way that we expect the head, faculty and staff to be evaluated annually, that same standard should apply to trustees and committees. Annual trustee and committee surveys are an ideal tool for this and serve a dual purpose: the board president receives feedback on the trustees’ personal experiences and perceptions of their own productivity through committee work, and trustees feel that their opinions are being heard as the board president and head establish objectives, committees and board meeting agendas for the coming year. In addition, one of the ways to gain feedback about the board and also to ensure that every board member feels seen and valued is for the president and/or head to meet annually with every board member. This is an opportunity for informal conversation as well as feedback about the school, the board, and the trustee’s experience and perspectives.
A Culture of Philanthropy
With a strong partnership in place between the president and the head, and a professional, transparent, inclusive governance infrastructure established, through which trustees can actively participate collaboratively and contribute to the institution’s growth, a philanthropic environment should naturally follow. It takes time and patience to implement a culture of philanthropy throughout an institution, and it is never too late to start. It begins with establishing clear expectations of 100% trustee participation in the annual fund effort. A dynamic and diverse development committee administered by experienced professionals and equipped with state-of-the-art development software is critical, since so often lack of proper and immediate follow-up obliterates any benefits of productive cultivation meetings and events.
The development committee membership should be diverse, and comprised of parents, grandparents, alumni, alumni parents, and community members. Committee outreach should involve a combination of minimum donor size events, parlor meetings and open community events. Educating trustees on the importance of supporting the institution financially and setting the example for others help establish the philanthropic culture. For those trustees not in the position to donate financially in a significant way, they can still be effective partners in other ways— by serving as active ambassadors of the school, hosting parlor meetings, and making strategic introductions to other donors and/or prospective students.
It essentially can be summed up as follows: offering a compelling product will result in successful fundraising. Those that are the most invested in the school’s success (i.e., trustees), and are in the position to make a significant positive impact on the school, tend to give generously once they believe in the product, understand what makes it unique, and see its effectiveness. When trustees feel as though they have played a major role in contributing to the school’s success the institution soon becomes one of their top philanthropic priorities. The additional philanthropic dollars generated by trustee giving for scholarship, programs, professional development, technology, facilities and endowment to secure the institution’s future will further highlight the direct impact of trustee support and make the trustees’ experience even more personally rewarding, hopefully enticing them to remain committed to the institution for the foreseeable future.
In conclusion, with a strong president-head partnership, solid systems and operations, and a trustee-centered culture that values the experience and contribution of every board member, schools will establish professional, transparent and accountable environments where trustees are meaningfully engaged, well educated and enthusiastic about the school and its impact on the community. This will foster effective governance and a thriving culture of philanthropy that will ultimately enable schools and other nonprofits to grow exponentially and operate more efficiently and strategically. ♦
Elizabeth Jick is board president at Gann Academy and past president at Beaver Country Day School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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