Designing a Board Retreat

Jack Peterson
November 2017

Most governing boards schedule an extended meeting time at least once a year to accomplish what can’t be accomplished during regular meetings. This is precious time for the board, so how can we design it to be most productive?

We call these special times together “retreats,” although they often aren’t retreats in the traditional sense of taking time away from our routine to center ourselves more on God. During the course of the year trustees find themselves making many decisions, but they long to step back to see how all these decisions fit into an overall direction for the school. They realize they need to set aside time to do this.

Their motivation is often just to do planning for the future, but there are three other important reasons for setting this time aside: strengthening board process, prayer and board formation, and strengthening board relationships. With proper design, and coordination with the regular meetings, all four can be accomplished. Let’s look at each of these four objectives.

Planning:

Board planning can range from setting annual goals for the board itself to setting a strategic vision for the school for the next five to ten years. If annual board goals are needed, the board can generally use a meeting or two to identify potential goals and use the retreat for deeper discussion and adoption.

If the need is for institutional strategic planning, satisfying that need may require three major steps. The first might be a retreat at the end of one year to initialize the process. Then most of the next school year may be needed for a steering committee and a number of subcommittees to engage the community in helping to develop the plan. Finally, at the end of that year, it may need another retreat to thoroughly review and approve the proposed plan.

Whatever the level of planning, it’s important to design the retreat to provide necessary information and incorporate sufficient discussion, yet work within the time available to bring closure to at least one step of the process.

Board Process:

There are many best practices for making boards more effective and no board has mastered them all. For instance, are agendas designed to allow for substantive discussion? Is there a policy manual that keeps a record of board decisions over the years? Is there a robust process for selecting and orienting new members? The board retreat is a good time to review those practices.

A helpful tool for doing this is reviewing the board’s annual self-evaluation (which is itself a best practice). By doing this at the retreat, the board can delve more deeply into its own needs, and set goals for the coming year to up its own game.

Formation:

In faith-based schools, it’s important that trustees, individually and as a group, embody the spirituality and ethos of the school. As lay people who work in the secular world, they bring some of this with them when they join the board. But given the role they now play in guiding a ministry, it’s critical that they continue to be fed spiritually. This can be done to some extent during regular meetings, but an opening and closing prayer, as important as they are, simply won’t fill the bill.

Even a personal commitment to spiritual growth doesn’t necessarily translate into a collective commitment. The retreat is an opportune time for the board to renew its commitment to the school’s religious foundations and explore how to better incorporate them into its work. Studying the school’s values and spiritual foundations is important, but board formation must also include an experiential element. Here we come closer to the traditional understanding of a retreat as a time away to renew our relationship with God.

While this was the original purpose of a retreat, it often gets lost in the press of handling weighty business matters. Even during regular meetings, boards would do well to pause for silent prayer, communal prayer, and reflection on scripture or other foundational documents. But these will be more effective if during retreat time the board can go deeper, learn and practice forms of prayer that enrich their reflection, and experience those graces that require time to develop.

Relationship-building:

We don’t often think of boards as teams. We think of them as people with various connections to the school who assemble to make decisions on behalf of the people it serves. They want to make those decisions carefully, but also efficiently. The idea of working on how they relate to each other as human beings seems like a luxury and not central to the work they do. And yet we all know the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional board.

A dysfunctional board struggles to get anything decided because members are distracted by each others’ perceived agendas and constantly in defensive mode. A functional board is one where mutual respect and appreciation allow members to focus on the issues at hand and draw strength from diverse perspectives and skills. I call it traveling at the speed of trust.

While boards often feel there’s not enough time for team-building activities, my experience is that they give back more time than they take. The board retreat is a great time for people to interact on a more human, relational level. It’s best if they can engage in activities that allow them to be more vulnerable and that put everyone on an equal footing.

An overnight retreat is a great way to build relationships, as is simply sharing meals together. I’ve also used everything from sing-alongs and drum circles to chowder cook-offs and Frisbee golf to break down the barriers. Invariably these additions to the agenda meet with suspicion and some anxiety. But they are often what people say later made the most difference in how they approach their work.

The question is how do we squeeze planning, process, formation, and relationship-building into one half-day or even day-long retreat? You may have noticed as you read the descriptions for each of these, that they are not independent of each other. Planning requires good board process. Prayer is a good way to build relationships. Formation can strengthen planning and working on process can be part of team-building

There are ways to blend these elements together. For one board, some elements may need to be emphasized more than others. In some cases greater development of an element may have to be take place beyond the retreat day. For instance, the retreat might kick-off a prayer program that trustees commit to which is revisited briefly at each board meeting throughout the year.

The key is to be thoughtful, the way schools are in designing their curriculum. Schools look at the big picture of what they want their students to become, and develop a curriculum to support that. As school boards and commissions, shouldn’t we use an analogous approach to design our meeting and retreat time?

I hope the foregoing has provided you with some principles for designing your board or commission retreat. You can scroll to the top of this page to watch a video of this post, or share it with others at your school who work on board development. And if you want to learn more, please explore the rest of this website, www.managingformission.com. You’ll find more information that can help you in your role with the school, or you can contact me and ask me your questions directly.

The work you do is important enough to set aside some special time for doing it better. You won’t regret the extra effort to use it well.

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The Four Models in a Faith-based School

Jack Peterson
August 2017

If you’re the administrator or trustee of a faith-based school, you have a tough job. Saying our schools are complex organizations doesn’t make it any easier. But it would be helpful to have a framework that brings greater clarity to what we’re doing—both for ourselves and the people we lead.

Every business knows that to succeed it needs an effective business model, and faith-based schools have learned that they do too. But they also need more. In fact, faith-based schools need to manage four different models at work in their school. Each model must be functional in itself and must support the function of the other three.

Let’s take a closer look:

As religion teachers and campus ministers will be happy to remind you, faith formation is at the core of our schools’ mission. It’s what makes us special. But it doesn’t happen by accident. We need to orchestrate a number of activities: To provide spiritual formation to our staff, build religion classes into the curriculum, develop a campus ministry program, service opportunities, and a way to tie our spiritual values to actions for social justice. All these components and others need to be organized into an effective strategy for engendering faith in our students. So we can say we have an Apostolic Model. A rudimentary representation might look like this:

1

But we’re schools, and as such, we need to prepare students for success in college and later life. To do this we need a college prep curriculum (even if we’re k-8, by the way). We need to put in place professional development, technology and facilities that support that curriculum. To pay attention to our student-teacher ratio and design an effective class schedule. We even need to consider how extra-curriculars like athletics support our pedagogy. Coordinating all this requires thought and skill, and so we can say, we must have a Pedagogical Model.

2

But anyone who works in a faith-based school knows that learning happens only in a nurturing environment, a fabric of relationships that supports the student in her growth. Again, this doesn’t happen by accident.

Having a strong community means attracting a committed and diverse student body. It means having skilled faculty who must be supported with professional development, appropriate salaries and benefits. But faith-based schools also need a wider “cloud of witnesses” that support the students, which includes parents and graduates, who are now alumni. Creating a healthy learning community is an intentional act and our strategy for doing so can be called our Community Model.

3

We don’t usually think of our schools as businesses, but like any business we live with the uncompromising reality that our revenues have to exceed our expenditures. We need to run on a budget, which requires, first of all, a healthy enrollment and tuition revenues, but our schools also require philanthropic support, from annual giving, events and endowment. And we also need to raise money through capital campaigns to provide the needed facilities. This all has to work, year in and year out, so, like any business we need a functioning Business Model.

4

Clearly for our schools to survive and flourish, each one of the models, our Apostolic, Pedagogical, Community and Business models, have to be well-managed. But here’s the challenge: not only does each have to be functional in itself, they also have to support each other. Most of the people in our schools live in one or another of these models, and may not even be sure why we need the other models, or whether they’re that important. But if you’re a trustee or a chief administrator of a faith-based school, your job is to unite them all into one overall model for an effective school.

5

As I say, you’ve got a tough job. Managing for mission is the process of aligning all the elements of the four models so that like oarsmen in a racing shell, they all pull together toward the school’s mission. We use tools like strategic planning, appropriate governance models, spirit inspired discernment, thoughtful human resource practices, communications and institutional advancement to achieve this alignment. More can be learned about these tools by exploring the resources on this website, www.managingformission.com.

If you’d like to see a visual presentation of this explanation of the Four Models in a Faith-based School, or use it to share with others in your school, go back to the top of this post and click on the video link.

And thanks for all you do to support faith based education. Keep up your good work on behalf of God’s beloved children.

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The Chain of Care

Jack Peterson
Managing for Mission

Faith-based schools exist to help students experience God’s loving, creative presence. And God’s loving, creative presence is always experienced through the love and care of the people in our lives. The tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola refers to this care as cura personalis.

When a child is born, nearly everything God desires for him is mediated through his parents. Through their love and care he first experiences God’s love and care. As he becomes more autonomous, though, it is others who refract God’s love into his life.

In school, teachers become the mediators of God’s love. The cura personalis they show frees the student and empowers him to grow, to take risks, to inquire into the purpose of his life and what God desires to give the world through him.

Part of the teacher’s care for the student is holding him accountable. Teachers in our schools will not settle for students being less than what they’re capable of. The teacher-student relationship forms the first link in a Chain of Care that supports our students.

Just as the student grows in the warmth of his teacher’s care, the teacher herself must experience cura personalis in her own life. If she experiences love, care and respect from her administrators, she will have a well of love to draw from for her students. The administrator-teacher relationship becomes the second link in the Chain of Care.

In order for an administrator to give cura personalis, he must experience it from the board, both in their support and their encouraging him to be the best administrator he can be. If he feels unappreciated, he won’t be able to draw from his own well and model care for the teachers. This is the third link.

The board itself needs to draw from the loving support and guidance of the school’s sponsoring entity, and the sponsor from the Church, and the Church from Christ. And even Jesus is part of a community of love and support, which we call the Trinity.

To have a rich, sustained cura personalis for the student, therefore, there needs to be a Chain of Care from the student, back to the teacher, back to the administrator, back to the board, the sponsor, the Church, and Jesus and the Trinity itself.

A chain works only if you don’t skip links. An administrator can’t exhaust her time or energy in direct care for the students and have too little left to support the teachers. Her best way to care for the students is to care for their teachers.

The same is true for the board. Its special responsibility is supporting the administration, including holding it accountable. The board should receive love, support and guidance from the sponsoring entity that represents the Church. It should also return that care in the form of loyalty, honesty and trust.

This reciprocity is important at every level of the Chain of Care and will lead ultimately to students experiencing, throughout their time in the school, the loving, creative presence of God in their life.

If you want to learn more about how to manage your school around this chain of care, click and follow this link to Managing for Missions’ website. I especially encourage boards and administrators to review the posts and videos on Discernment, an approach to decision-making that uncovers God’s deep desires for the school and strengthens the Chain of Care. You can also view a video version of this post by clicking here.

Achieving the aspirational mission of faith-based schools requires more than just a chain of command. The school must exemplify in its very being the care for persons that Christ modeled for us. We do this by enlivening the Chain of Care at all levels to support our students’ experience of God’s loving, creative presence in their lives.

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Diversity for Faith-based Schools

Jack Peterson
Managing for Mission


If the second Diversity video doesn’t start automatically, click here.

Most schools struggle with the challenge of diversity. They want to serve all kinds of students, but they often can’t attract under-represented minorities or fully involve them in the life of the school. Working on diversity was one of my greatest challenges as a school president, but also one of my greatest sources of joy. In the process, I learned that to understand why our schools struggle to achieve their diversity goals, we have to answer a few questions and we have to answer them honestly:

Why is Diversity important?

What do we mean by diversity?

Why is it so difficult to achieve?

And what is our goal?

First, why is diversity important to us? As faith-based schools, we’re in the business of forming students with competence, conscience and compassion. If ours school were transplanted to the 1850’s, we’d like to think that the education our students now receive would give them the intellectual clarity and moral courage to recognize the evils of slavery.

But the views we would have been educating against were deeply woven into the culture, and opposing them would be as radical as anything we can conceive of today. The reason that diversity is important, is that after hundreds of years and many generations of weaving, the racism on which slavery was founded is still woven into our culture. In American cities we think of today as diverse, people of color are still experiencing exclusion from opportunity.

White people like me may not experience racism directly, but those whose skin is brown can experience it in some form on a daily basis. And it still has a huge influence on who has access to the rich opportunities our schools can provide.

So if we’re serious about fostering diversity in our schools, we have to face the legacy of slavery which, in many ways, continues to perpetuate the racism that is still alive today, even in the communities we serve. And doing something about it will arouse deep feelings, which can include fear, resentment, guilt and denial.

The second question is “What does diversity mean to us?” There are many kinds of diversity: economic, gender, academic or even geographic diversity with international students. As important as they are, the biggest challenge is including students whose families have been treated for centuries, to borrow Jesus’ words, as the “least of these.” Reaching out to the most excluded in our culture is still the apostolic frontier for faith-based schools, and at some point we have to cross that frontier and make a commitment to do things differently in order to achieve different results.

The third question is why is achieving racial diversity so difficult? I used to think that publishing our Equal Opportunity Statement would ensure that the barriers would be removed. But it became clear that most of the barriers are hidden. Barriers may be finances, language, location, lack of awareness and the symbols we use. Each of these must be addressed if a school wants a student body drawn from all communities, and many schools have made heroic commitments to eliminating these barriers.

But perhaps the biggest barrier is one we don’t see. “Whose school is this?” No one wants to attend someone else’s school. If I am black, I don’t want to attend or send my children to a school that is clearly intended to serve white people. Because at some point, I will encounter something that tells me or my child, this isn’t “your” school. It may be the parking lot supervisor who interrogates me when I come to pick up my child. It may be being called on to give the “African American perspective” during a discussion of Huckleberry Finn.

Closely related is “Whose voices are heard?” Are there people on the board or in the administration or faculty who understand my experience because they have also lived it? If I am one of a handful of Latino parents, do I have to go to the parent information night where no one else would have my question or concern, or ask it in the same language? If the campus doesn’t always feel safe to me, is there a safe place I can go to get myself grounded again? And do most people at the school not understand why that safe place is even important, because for them the whole school is their safe place?

Finally, “What is our real goal here?” Is our goal to be able to say our school does not discriminate? That shouldn’t be hard to achieve. We don’t have to actively discriminate in a system where the barriers are built in. Maybe our goal is more substantial, like being inclusive and welcoming. This requires us to become more aware of the hidden ways in which we are not welcoming.

But the mission of our schools calls us to go a step further. Our institutions and our students have a responsibility to use their intelligence, skills and resources to dismantle and finally eliminate racism not only in ourselves but in society. To be anti-racist.

So here’s my advice to administrators and boards who are serious about moving the needle on diversity in their schools.

First, take time to have honest conversations about the questions we talked about above. Use the same depth of discernment and involve the same levels of the organization you would use to formulate your mission statement.

Second, if you are white like me, put yourself in situations where you are in a minority, like attending a Black or Latino church service, and ask what it would take for you to feel at home. Then imagine what it would take for the people around you to feel at home in your school.

Third, provide safe ways that students and parents of color can educate you about their needs, perceptions and challenges. It’s difficult for them to express this in a setting where most people don’t already share their experience. You’ll have to earn their trust, because many before you have lost it.

Finally, you’ll have to dedicate great effort to recruit faculty, administrators and trustees of color, and support them in the challenges of isolation that they will feel. One of the best ways is to keep in touch with your own students of color and invite them back to join the team. It’s a long game, but there is no short game on this one.

It’s hard to do this topic justice in a few paragraphs. If you want to learn more about discernment and other tools that can help you approach this and other school challenges, please explore our website at www.managingformission.com. Click on one of share buttons below to send this blog to others who are key to meeting your school’s commitment to diversity. And thanks for having the courage to assure that the blessings of your school are available to all God’s children.

Special thanks to Dr. Saj Kabadi of Regis Jesuit High School, Barbara Henderson of Bellarmine Preparatory School, Matt Balano of St. Ignatius College Prep, Dr. Donna Andrade of Fairfield College Preparatory School and Gwen White for their contributions to this post.

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Elements of a Major Gift Ask

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
November, 2016 


In most cases, meaningful donations happen because someone asks.  That’s why it’s considered one of the 5 Requisites for Development Success.  When we’re hoping for substantial gifts from potential benefactors, those asks must be done in a way that is clear, thoughtful and compelling.  From my experience as a development director and school president, I’ve learned that 8 steps are crucial to making an effective request from an important donor.

The first step is setting the appointment:  Nothing happens till this does.  When calling to set the appointment, avoid making the ask while on the phone.  The call may go something like this

You:  “I’m working on the capital campaign for the school and would like to talk with you about your       possible involvement.”

Donor: “We’re not in a position to give at this point”

You: “That’s okay, all I’m asking for at this point is the opportunity to tell you what we’re up to and let you determine whether you have an interest”

Second, know the prospective donor: Even if you know the person, take time to review their file. You’ll often be reminded of important information that isn’t top of mind: children’s names, issues raised in the last conversation, events at the school, most recent gifts.  I’m surprised how often this information is key to the conversation.

Third, practice for the call:  It’s always beneficial to run through the call with someone familiar with the donor. It can feel awkward to role play in advance, but it’s amazing how well it prepares you for the give and take of the actual meeting.  If more than one person from the school will participate in the call, decide who will present what and who will make the actual request.

Fourth, give context:  Even if the donor feels she knows the cause well, take time to explain it and paint a picture for her. Use the case statement or materials prepared.  Numbers and logic are helpful, but more important is sharing your own motivations and emotional reasons for being involved.  Also, consider what you know about this person’s values and interests, look at the project from their perspective and frame your presentation in those terms.

Fifth, ask for a gift:  It’s important to ask for a specific gift, so that the person understands what he could do to make the overall project a success.  But it’s also important to be clear that it is this person’s choice.  They have been entrusted by God with this decision as a steward of resources.  If God trusts them with the decision, we can too.  The request might sound something like this:

“In light of what I’ve presented and the importance of this project for the school, we were hoping you’d consider a pledge of $500,000 over the next 3 years to fund the new college counseling center.  You may be interested in doing more than that, in which case we would be even closer to our goal.  Or you may feel you can’t do that much.  Whatever you decide, based on your understanding of the project’s importance and your own circumstances, will be gratefully accepted.”

After this is said, stop talking and let the donor respond to your request.  Our temptation will be to cushion the ask with more words.  More often than not, this is distracting for the donor, who is giving serious thought to your request.

Sixth, handle objections:  Objections may come after your request has been made, or they may come before.  In either case, these are opportunities to hear what the donor is thinking, so they’re crucial moments in the meeting.  The best way to handle objections is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the issue, share how you may have had to deal with that yourself, and then what conclusion you came to.  A good structure for doing this is called “Feel, Felt, Found.”  You might say something like this:

“I know how you feel about whether technology has more bad effects than good.  I felt that myself as I looked at that project and thought about the impact of technology in my own life.  What I found is that these kids are entering a world saturated by technology and we need to prepare them for it in a way that’s centered in our faith.”

Seventh, finalize the pledge:  If the donor agrees to a pledge before the meeting ends, have a pledge form ready and help them complete it to record their intentions.  In many cases, the donor will want additional time to consider the request.  Suggest a timeframe to get back to them to finalize their intentions.  Don’t simply leave them a pledge form, even if they suggest that.  Given people’s tendencies to procrastinate, they may get distracted and it will feel like nagging if you have to follow up.  Agree to a time that works for them for you to follow up. Wait to fill out the pledge form with them when they have made their decision.

Eighth, thank the donor.  Thank them for the opportunity to present the case.  Thank them when they’ve made a decision.  Have others important to them offer their thanks as well.  Helping to make this a great experience for the donor will increase the likelihood of giving in the future.

A free PDF version of a pocket brochure covering the 8 steps of a Major Gift Ask that can be printed and given to staff and volunteers is available from Managing from Mission, by emailing jackpeterson@managingformission.com. A free 6 minute video tutorial about making the Major Gift Ask is available at this link: 8 Steps of a Major Gift Ask.  To learn more about fund development for faith-based schools or managing your school around its unique mission, visit the other parts of this website at www.managingformission.com.

Finally, thank you for inviting potential benefactors to help you foster the spiritual and academic growth of the next generation.

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Branding Faith-based Schools

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August, 2016

Branding has become a key concept in the strategy for any business today.  This should include faith-based schools.  But as much as administrators realize that competing for students means stepped up marketing efforts, there is still suspicion and misunderstanding around branding strategy.  Is branding really what faith-based schools need to be doing?

For me it’s clear that, to ready themselves for the challenges ahead, faith-based schools must indeed embrace their unique brand.  With the costs of education rising and a broadening range of educational choices families have access to—from magnet schools to charter schools, and home schooling to on-line academies—it will be critical that we distinguish ourselves and create an understanding of and loyalty to our brand.  But there’s a way to do it without forsaking, or for that matter cheapening, our mission or our charism.  The key is in how you define brand.

In my work, I’ve come to define brand as how our mission looks to our publics.  We’d like to think that our mission dictates our brand.  But it doesn’t, at least not by itself.  We can write the most accurate and compelling mission statement we want, but it will not prevent people from formulating their own mission statement for our school based on what they experience.  Having an accurate and compelling mission statement is a good place to start, in fact the right place to start.  But we still have to ask how this will look to the families we exist to serve.  Ignatius of Loyola knew this as well as anyone, and the Jesuit schools and ministries he inspired understand that simply having the right message isn’t enough.  We have to communicate it effectively.  There’s an old Jesuit saying, “We bring them in their door so that we can bring them out ours.”  People aren’t always ready to hear our message.  But if we understand what they are ready for, we can lead them beyond where they’re at to something deeper.

How do we do that?  To answer this question, I’d like to draw from what I learned from the marketing firm, JayRay (www.JayRay.com).  JayRay looks at brand as having three components—3 P’s if you will:  Position, Personality and Promise.  I like these three P’s because they give me a strategy for approaching the challenge of branding, and they are congenial to the spirit of a faith-based school.

Position is simply where people locate you in the in the spectrum of organizations which address the same needs you do.  There may be other academically excellent schools in your catchment area, maybe even some more respected than yours.  There may be other faith-based schools available.  But perhaps your unique spot is that you are the most academically superior, faith-based school in your area.  That might be your position in the “market.”

Personality is how people experience your school on a human level.  Are you strict and formal?  Are you relaxed?  Do you have a good sense of humor?  Do you value creativity, or discipline, or somehow both?  Certainly each of your teachers has her own personality, but your school has a personality too.  Hopefully, that personality is an expression of the love and welcome implied by the Gospel and spiritual charism of the school.  School personalities can’t be fabricated, especially not for marketing purposes.  But they are a good indicator of how well the loving spirit of Jesus is embraced by a school.  If that is not well, work needs to be done at the root level.  If your personality expresses your underlying charism, then the school should acknowledge and broadcast it.  This personality should be reflected in the speeches given by the president and principal, the way the school’s website looks, the photographs chosen for publications, even the types of media you choose to communicate with.

The word Promise is a great way to look at mission.  JayRay would ask, “What is it you promise to do every day as a school?”  Do you promise to be welcoming—every day, to everyone?  Do you promise to create a safe environment, to challenge all students to their full potential?  Do you promise to graduate students who are open to growth, intellectually competent, loving, religious and committed to justice?  And do you promise to work toward that each day?

One of the things I like about this approach to branding is that it is not, as so many assume, an outside-in approach.  We picture an ad agency coming up with a catchy phrase that tests well in consumer research and launching an ad campaign to create an image for their client.  But it doesn’t really work that way.  Well, maybe this works for some businesses.  But it won’t work for a faith-based school.  Brand has to begin at the very core of who the school is and radiate outwards.  JayRay describes it as a pebble in a pond with the waves radiating out from the center.  Teachers and office staff and custodians and coaches all have to understand the school’s promise as their promise and commit themselves each day to keeping it.

The school’s Strategic Plan is an important tool for aligning all community members around the position, personality and promise that shape its brand.  That’s why MfM uses a strategic planning process with its faith-based school clients that generates a high degree of stakeholder input.

In their own ways, which are very “corporate,” Apple and Starbucks have achieved high alignment with their employees.  Companies whose employees live out their brand have given us a great example.  It seems to me, however, that with the graces we are able to draw upon, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the core of our schools, we should be showing them how it’s done.

Your school has a great message to share.  Aligning everything your school does around its core message is a big part of what we call managing for mission.  If you want to know more, please visit our website, www.managingformission.com.  And keep up the good work of bringing the mission of faith-based education to families who may need it even more than they realize.

This topic of Branding for Faith-based Schools can also be viewed as an seven minute video by clicking here. I encourage you to learn more about governance and school management by viewing the other tutorials on this website and our YouTube Channel.

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Faith-based School Boards 3

Best Practices for Doing the Board’s Work
May, 2016

Having great Trustees won’t by itself assure a great Board.  The other ingredient is effective processes for going about their work.  If you read the first two posts in this three-part series, you heard about the board’s role, as well as some best practices for becoming a better board.  In this post I’d like to talk about best practices for doing the Board’s work.

The areas I’ll focus on in this post are:

    Committees

    Strategic Planning

    Evaluating the Chief Administrator

    Board philanthropy

Committees

Boards do their work at a fairly high level, so their span of responsibility is quite broad. To give meaningful oversight to the apostolic, pedagogical, human and business dimensions of the school, boards must divide up the work among committees.  There they can focus on specific issues and bring back a deeper knowledge to inform board decisions.

Standing committees should be kept to a minimum, five at most, because they require significant time from both the trustees and the administrators who must support them.  These can be augmented by ad hoc committees as other needs arise.  Trustees should serve on no more than two committees, and for many, one will be commitment enough.

That means that committees should also involve non-trustees, who can add greater breadth and depth to deliberations.  The non-trustees are also a pool of potential trustees as they learn about the board’s work and the board learns about how they work.

The main role of a committee is to recommend to the board, when necessary, policies related to their area.  But they don’t set policy themselves.  More often, they serve as a sounding board and a resource to the administrator working in the area they oversee.  They must be clear, however, that they are not supervising that administrator, or it will subvert the relationship of the chief administrator to her administrative team.

In a high functioning board, most of the work is being done by the committees.  Because this is true, it works well to have the board and committees meet in alternating months.

Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning is the process of aligning the significant internal factors within a school’s control to better accomplish the mission, in the face of significant external factors not within the school’s control.

While the Strategic Plan is a crucial tool for the chief administrative officer, and the CAO provides leadership in its creation, the Strategic Plan must be formulated under the board’s authority.  The Strategic Plan allows the board to stay on the governance level, while giving the CAO clarity about its vision for the school.  Board members come and go, so the CAO and his team need the assurance of continuity in the strategic directions they are pursuing.

So ultimately the board “owns” the plan, and the CAO leads the planning process.  But because a faith-based school runs on generosity, its stakeholders need to participate in the process.  Their involvement assures that the experience of people served by the school shapes the plan, and it builds their ownership, so crucial when the time comes for implementation.

Managing for Mission has identified ten characteristics of effective plans.  Of these, the four most important are that they be:

    Truly Strategic

    Broadly owned

    Implementation oriented

    Compelling

To accomplish this generally requires a year from start to finish.  Managing for Mission has a separate tutorial on Strategic Planning and additional materials on our website.

Chief Administrator Evaluation

The board has only one employee who reports to it directly.  It is therefore imperative that the board give direction and feedback to its employee.  When things are going well, it may seem like a formal evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer is unnecessary.  But there are at least three important reasons to maintain this practice.

First, if problems do develop, they will be easier to deal with if there has been a consistent discipline of evaluation.

Second, the evaluation isn’t just to identify problems with the CAO’s performance.  It’s a time for her to hear from the board that her job is important and she has their appreciation when she does it well and their support where she needs to get better.

Third, it sets a good example.  The CAO should be evaluating her administrative team, who should in turn be evaluating the faculty and staff who report to them.  The board must model the importance of evaluations to the CAO, giving her leverage when asking employees to participate in a process that applies to her as well.

The CAO should receive formative feedback on a regular basis.  This can be in an informal setting, like a monthly meeting with the Board Chair, but it should be planned and regular.

Managing for Mission also recommends that the board administer an annual summative evaluation which identifies and documents officially both achievements to be recognized and deficiencies to be remedied.

The summative evaluation should include data on the progress toward Strategic Plan goals, review of professional goals, a self-evaluation and confidential survey sampling 360o input from direct reports, various sectors of the school community, and every trustee.

The annual review should also include setting goals for the coming year.  Goal setting, and evaluation based on the goals, should be done yearly because good performance trends can’t wait for two or three years to be acknowledged and adverse performance trends can’t wait to be corrected.

Nothing the board does will impact the well-being of the school more that doing a thoughtful and consistent job of giving formative and summative feedback to the CAO.

Board Philanthropy

For some, providing philanthropic support is the most important job of the board.  I don’t think that‘s true, but it is pretty important.  Faith-based schools depend for their very existence on the generosity of benefactors.  To give such generous support, a donor needs to understand what the school is about and feel a personal connection.  Who is more knowledgeable and connected than the trustees?  If they are not willing benefactors, how could we expect anyone else to be?

Conversely, who can make a better board member than one who has done his due diligence and made a major investment in the school?   He will want to follow his investment and will have extra motivation and insight in carrying out his duties.

Trustees set an example for others to follow, in this as in other matters.   While it’s great to have people of wealth on the board who can give leadership gifts, it’s more important that all board members support both the annual fund and any campaign to an extent proportionate to their means.  In this way they can support the five keys to development success.

We’ve talked about committees, strategic planning, evaluation of the chief administrator and board philanthropy.  In the previous tutorial we talked about recruiting new members, formation, self- evaluation, and board manuals.   There are other best practices, but if trustees make a concerted effort in these, they can become a great board.

This topic of Four Best Practices for Doing the Board’s Work can also be viewed as an eight minute video by clicking here. I encourage you to learn more about governance and school management by viewing the other tutorials on this website and our YouTube Channel.

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