The Board’s Unique Role

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
February 15, 2016

Boards are funny creatures.  We give ultimate authority for an institution dearly important to us to a group of people who have little expertise in the core work of education, who spend only a precious few hours working together, and who must guide the school from within the cumbersome framework of group decision-making.  Why would we do this?

As unwieldy as school governance can feel at times, it’s critical to accomplishing the school’s mission over the long run.  

For school administrators, governing boards can sometimes feel like a necessary evil, something that just complicates their job and their ability to manage the school.  Unfortunately, this can be a self-fulfilling assumption.  The more we ignore the board and try to minimize the board and its impact, the more problematic it becomes.  Administrators will be able to do their jobs better if they invest time in supporting the board, in its proper role, and helping it become more effective.

So what is the board’s role?

We’ve all heard the word “fiduciary” to describe the role of trustees, as in “boards have a fiduciary responsibility.”  I used to think this word meant “financial,” that the board’s responsibility is relegated to the financial solvency of the school.  But fiduciary simply means trust.  It means that the board holds the school in trust for the community it serves and for the mission that comes to it from the greater church.

While administrators know their professions and their school’s mission well, they need this group of trustees to connect their work and the mission to the community they serve.  When boards are working well they bring three indispensable benefits to the school, often characterized as wisdom, wealth and work.

Wisdom

Trustees are a rich source of wisdom for shaping governance level policies and for assisting administrators in shaping administrative level policies because they’re drawn from a range of professions and backgrounds.

Wealth

When we say they bring “wealth,” we don’t mean simply that the trustees themselves are wealthy.  We mean that, because they connect well with the community, they help the school access resources it never could without them.  Yes, they themselves need to be benefactors, in proportion to their means, but they also attract other benefactors, and they help the schools tap into opportunities they might not otherwise.

Work

“Work” refers to the volunteering trustees do, not only in formulating sound policy for the schools, but by rolling up their sleeves to assist in areas of the school’s operations where their talents can be enlisted.

The Board forms an important link in what we call the “Chain of Care” that extends from Jesus to the church to the board, to the administration and faculty and ultimately to the student.  By doing its job well, the board strengthens this Chain of Care so that the students experience in a palpable and sustainable way the loving, creative presence of God in their lives.  If you want to learn more about this, Managing for Mission has a tutorial explaining the Chain of Care in greater depth.

As I said earlier, boards are funny creatures, and it isn’t always easy for trustees or administrators to understand the nuances of their role.  The line between governance and administration can be fuzzy, and board members can feel pulled inside that line and begin micromanaging and interfering with the administration.  Or they can feel pushed so far outside it that they can’t provide that life-giving connection that holds the school accountable to the community and the community accountable to supporting the school.

I’d like to borrow a way of explaining this from my colleague, David Coleman, author of Board Essentials, who talks about the different hats trustees wear.  There are three of them, and it is critical that Board members understand at any given point which hat they’re wearing.

Policy

The first hat is the policy hat.  It’s the most important, because governance level policy can only be formulated by the board.  If the board doesn’t set these overall policies no one else can.  No one else has that authority.  But as important as the policy function is, it’s the thing boards actually do the least.  Schools just don’t need that many governance level policies and once they’re in place, they usually stay in place for a while.

An example of a governance level policy might be the school’s commitment to diversity, or to employee benefits.  Budget is one of those grey areas, with the board setting the bigger parameters, like tuition or the faculty base, but not deliberating line item expenditures.

As seldom as trustees make big policy decisions, they still have to keep this hat close at hand because when it’s needed, they’re the only ones who can wear it.

Sounding Board

The second hat I call “Sounding Board.”  As pointed out earlier, there is a wealth of collective wisdom on the board, and administrators would do well to access that wisdom as they make decisions and formulate their administrative policies.

There are times when an administrator may want advice from the board for a decision which is hers to make, for instance a change to the dress code.  If the board thinks it’s wearing its Policy hat, it may end up tying the hands of the administrator by directing her rather than advising her.  When this happens, it can lead the administrator to become overly cautious about what she shares with the board.  The board is then pushed further away from the school and the wisdom it could offer is lost.

Volunteer

Finally there is the “Volunteer” hat.  The board is a great source of volunteers because they’re usually skilled and passionate about the school and its interests.  But again the trustees take off their Policy hats when they volunteer in the school.  

If a trustee is asked to serve on the campaign committee, he doesn’t overrule the development director by virtue of his status as a trustee.  In fact he has to be careful even when he isn’t intending to speak authoritatively because school personnel may assume they’d better do what he says.

I sometimes wish board members would actually wear these hats so that it’s clear to themselves and others what role they’re filling at any given point.  Short of requiring that, trustees should be constantly asking which hat they are wearing and make sure that is communicated to those they work with.

More information on how boards can best carry out their crucial role is available several places on this website, www.managingformission.com, by clicking on our SERVICES and RESOURCES tabs.  Or go to our MfM YouTube Channel, where you’ll find tutorials on best practices and an approach to discernment particularly appropriate for faith-based schools.  You can also find a video version of this blog post.

Thanks for your willingness to strengthen the mission of your school by serving on or supporting its board.  I pray that God will bless you in your work and bless the school and its students as a result.

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