Leading with Intent: a Call to Action for Nonprofits

By Jeffrey Shields posted 12-02-2015 06:44 PM


CEO Notebook |

A dynamic group of volunteers, a hard-working staff and a well-defined mission to which both groups are committed: This is the unique ideal of nonprofit governance, but it is not easily achieved. In fact, nonprofit leaders themselves give nonprofit boards a B-minus in overall performance, according to Leading with Intent: a National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (free to download), which synthesizes years of data involving nonprofit board practices, policies and performance.

I learned about this report last month, when I attended the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum along with 900 other nonprofit board chairs, CEOs, volunteers and staff. Three takeaways in particular, from a session covering the Leading with Intent findings, struck me as especially important for independent schools.

Getting the right people is fundamental. The composition of an effective board must include competencies and skills that can advance your school's strategy in support of its mission. As I heard repeatedly at the forum, these are complex times in which the work of the board may be more critical than ever. For independent schools, the board correlates with the success of the institution and can either amplify the work of your leadership team, faculty and staff—or limit it.

Boards need to get outside of their comfort zones. While faculty, staff and leadership are tasked with managing their school's day-to-day functions and providing students with a world-class education, trustees must focus on the school's long-term strategy and future. According to the BoardSource report, this translates to greater focus on fundraising and advocacy. Clearly, fundraising fits squarely in the wheelhouse of independent school trustees.

Investments in board development are worth the effort. I recall a Governance Committee meeting when the discussion turned to board development for trustees as a whole. One person remarked, "What problem are we trying to solve? Doesn't everyone know how to be a trustee?" The answer is no, everyone does not. And the only way to address this reality and ensure boards have a collective understanding of their role is to commit to ongoing board development.

Plenty of other good takeaways emerged from this BoardSource session as well. For instance: "Robert's Rules of Order are sometimes at odds with meaningful discussion," "The board steers and the management rows" and, my personal favorite when it comes to board work: "Noses in and fingers out."

BoardSource wasn't the only place buzzing about governance that week in November. Coincidentally, a New York Times article focused on governance in the context of higher education. "Being a trustee is exciting, but it is now also work," wrote Lawrence Perlman, a trustee at Carleton College. In "Expectations Mount for Trustees in Higher Education," he chronicled this evolution from "clubby men who wrote checks" to "focused work by people with specific skills" who must respond to increased demand from students and parents for financial transparency, among other things.

Beyond doubt, good governance is essential for independent schools. To every business officer with a voice in the matter, I say do your part to ensure that your board is intentionally leading your school.

From Bottomline, December 1, 2015.

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