4 Best Practices for Becoming a Great Board
Your board is contributing in important ways to the success of your school. But if you’ve already read the first blog post in this series, The Role of the Board, it means you want, not just a good board, but a great one.
In this tutorial, we’ll focus on best practices for becoming a great board: new member recruitment, formation, self-evaluation and the board’s Policy Manual.
Being on a board is a little like coming down off a mountain. If you get started in the wrong direction it’s harder and harder to get back to the right one. If new board members aren’t properly identified, recruited and oriented, the board will deal with the resulting mismatch of expectations and skills for years. Here are some important ways to avoid that.
First, Identify needs and potential candidates. The board should maintain a profile in spread sheet form that identifies current Board members’ term expiration, committee assignments, association with the school, gender, ethnicity, profession, and skills. Using this profile, a nominating committee can identify any coming gaps that will need to be filled and compile a pool of potential candidates to fill them.
Second, carefully Recruit new Board members. Think of recruitment as the beginning of the orientation process. Involving the chair, the chief administrator and one other board member in the ask will alert the prospective trustee that he or she will be joining a high-functioning team.
Having prepared materials that answer the nominee’s questions will demonstrate the Board’s commitment to the new member and its own processes. The common questions nominees have are:
What is the school’s Mission Statement?
What are the expectations of board members?
How much of a time commitment is it? When does the board meet?
Who else is on the Board?
What are the school’s strategic goals for the next few years?
But the most important thing they want to know is “Why are you asking me? What do you expect me to bring to the Board?” Don’t be afraid that being honest about expectations will scare them off. The right person will be attracted by your enthusiasm and the serious way the Board approaches prospective members.
The recruitment process is a good start, but a formal orientation process will help bring the new trustee up to speed quickly. In this orientation he or she is introduced to school leadership and key processes and documents, like the Mission Statement, the Strategic Plan, expectations of the sponsoring religious body, school history and current issues the Board has been grappling with.
This orientation can begin during a dinner meeting at the start of the school year, but on-boarding should also include opportunities over the course of their first year. Some schools assign a mentor as a resource person for the neophyte trustee.
The process just described is applicable to any board of any organization. Faith-based schools need to take this a step further with what we call Formation. Their mission, which the board is in place to support, is to foster not just the intellectual growth of its students, but their spiritual growth as well. Trustees must not only understand what that means, but be committed to their own spiritual growth. There’s a difference between information and formation. Formation needs to be experiential, regular and geared to the needs of trustees as they grow on the board.
For our students, we think through a curriculum to guide them during their years in our school rather than just present unconnected lessons and courses. Similarly, we need to think through how a trustee will grow over their 3 or 6 years on the board, and design a formation program to foster that growth. Maybe, for instance, the second year trustees have already been trained on group discernment. So you don’t want to repeat it for them. But the first year folks still need it. An effective formation program has some common elements for all trustees, like the board retreat, and some elements geared to the needs of each cohort.
An important element of any growth process is evaluation. We learn from experience, but only if we reflect honestly on that experience. An individual might be able to do this for herself in an informal way, because there is only one self doing the evaluating. But that won’t work for a board because each trustee would know only his own feelings about how the board is functioning. A regular, formal process in which everyone participates is needed for the board as a whole to learn from its own experience how things are going and how they can be improved.
The questions should ask trustees to rate the quality of their meetings, decision-making processes, agendas, the presentations and information they receive, committee effectiveness, their relationship with the administration and whether the board has the kinds of members it needs. It should also ask trustees to rate their own participation and effectiveness, as well as how the experience has gone for them and how it could be better. The results of the evaluation should be discussed in a meeting where the board can prioritize the improvements it wants to make and set goals for the coming year.
Board Policy Manual
The by-laws provide general rules within which the board and the school must operate. But over time, the board will develop its own policies to govern itself and the school. As trustees join and leave the board, it’s important to have one place they can find all board policies currently in force.
These might include the processes for electing officers, approving new members, approving the budget, conducting a self-evaluation or evaluating the chief administrative officer. Having a Policy Manual spares the Board from reinventing processes once it has developed them, but it doesn’t prevent the Board from modifying them as its needs change.
Board Policy Manuals can be kept in hard-copy form, but schools are finding it more helpful to maintain them on line, often on a trustee webpage linked to the school’s website. This allows access to them from anywhere and assures that the manual trustees are looking at is up to date. The Board Policy Manual comes under the purview of the board secretary but is usually maintained by a school staff member.
These best practices around recruitment, formation, self-evaluation and the board policy manual– will strengthen your board’s effectiveness if you’re not already doing them. If you are, be sure to review them periodically to make sure your board is receiving their full benefit.
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 particularly appropriate for faith-based schools. You can also find a video version of this blog post.
In the third blog post in this series, Doing the Board’s Work, we’ll look at four other areas where best practices can strengthen your board’s effectiveness: committees, strategic planning, evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer and Board philanthropy.
I encourage you to keep learning more about effective boards and working to make sure your school’s board is one of them.