From the Board: Empowering Boards to Step up

I have been so impressed with the determination, resilience and creativity of our day school community in attacking the challenge of returning to in-person instruction and/or providing the best-possible virtual learning. And I couldn’t be prouder of the myriad ways that Prizmah’s professional staff has enabled schools to cope with, and even grow from, the Covid experience.

I would like to focus on the unique impact that the crisis has had on day school boards and offer three ways we can capitalize on the operating mode in this environment to improve board performance during the pandemic and beyond.

1 It is often said that we must never let a good crisis go to waste. The simple reality is that a difficult operating environment energizes lay leaders to step up to the plate. But it does not happen by itself. The board chair and professional leadership must ensure that the board has sufficient information and suggested modes of involvement that are both achievable and impactful. If done well, lay leaders walk away from the experience more energized and engaged, and with a deeper relationship with the institution and its professional staff.

As with so many other institutions birthed and nurtured by The AVI CHAI Foundation, its sunset left a major gap in Prizmah’s operating budget. Notwithstanding a long notice

period and transition support from the Foundation, replacing millions of dollars in philanthropic support was, and remains, a gargantuan task. However, everyone in the organization assumed responsibility. From the board side, lay leaders became far more familiar with the organization’s operating environment and costs, ramped up their involvement in development efforts and, in almost every case, increased their own board giving. Today, long after this crisis, our financial stability is very much a product of the changed role of the board in both giving and development.

2 The current pandemic has upended school operations, to put it mildly. All sorts of decisions must be made, often with extreme time pressure. The traditional pace and timing of board

involvement simply does not suffice for the current environment. While some schools might respond to the pace of decisions by a diminishment of the board’s role in issues that would normally be in its domain, bypassing the critical governance role that boards play and, perhaps more importantly, leaving the school without the vital buy-in and support of its board weakens the organization and detracts from the critical partnership between the professionals and the board.

Devising methods of board communication that clearly articulate potential avenues of approach, with a detailed listing of the pros and cons of each option, allows a board to quickly make difficult decisions. Figuring out those issues that need, or can benefit from, board engagement ensures that limited board time is used in an effective fashion and that board members feel that their involvement affects the reality on the ground and utilizes the talents that they bring to the boardroom table.

3 When board decisions are made and shared with the broader school community, there is often a torrent of questions and comments from community members—especially in the current environment, where everyone seems to have absolute and definitive views on the proper course of action for the school. At day schools, perhaps because the stakes are so high—nothing less than the Jewish future—everyone cares a great deal.

One of the most effective board functions is the presentation and explanation of decisions made by the board. While parents and other stakeholders may disagree with a decision, they will accept it far more readily if they understand how the decision was made, who was involved in the decision-making process, and the factors and alternatives that were considered. Board members can and should be equipped to fulfill this role. Big decisions should be accompanied by a clear set of talking points, and board members must speak with one voice. Board members can even practice how to present decisions in role-playing scenarios within the safe space of a board meeting.

Emboldened by their commitment to the school’s mission and purpose, board members who are properly engaged in decision- making and communication will meaningfully assist school leadership in navigating the challenges of Covid-19. Focusing on these processes will improve board utilization, effectiveness and satisfaction during, and hopefully long after, the Covid-19 crisis.

Yehuda Neuberger, Prizmah's Board Chair
Knowledge Topics
Governance, School Policies and Procedures
Published: Fall 2020