2020 may well be known as “the year of the pivot,” as our schools quickly shifted to online learning, re-configured physical classroom spaces to accommodate social distancing, and completely rethought school-day schedules, among other efforts. Our collective focus continues — and rightly so — to be on those aspects of our schools that are central to the health and safety of our entire learning community and the day-to-day delivery of our educational missions. But a recent article from my own professional association, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), helped me focus on another area vital to the long-term success of our independent schools: the impact of our “virtual” governance practices.
2020 may well be known as “the year of the pivot,” as our schools quickly shifted to online learning, re-configured physical classroom spaces to accommodate social distancing, and completely rethought school-day schedules, among other efforts.
I know firsthand the impact of virtual meetings, having conducted the work of the NBOA Board of Directors virtually since spring 2020. The group has been highly creative in ensuring that the association is effectively governed with proper oversight, and the entire NBOA team has worked to ensure that board members have a meaningful experience and benefit from the collegiality among their peers, which is a hallmark of NBOA board service.
The article that spoke to this experience was “How Boards Can Thrive Virtually” by Mark Athitakis. Athitakis cites a recent study on nonprofit governance conducted by OnBoard, a maker of nonprofit management software used by ASAE’s Board of Directors among other nonprofits. “A solid majority of respondents (79%) said their boards have improved effectiveness in the past 12 months, and 66% say they’ve seen improvements in collaboration.”
Virtual meetings “have leveled the playing field,” according to Rob Kunzler, OnBoard’s chief marketing officer — and more board members are showing up to play.” He observes that “when everyone occupies the same amount of digital space, there’s a democratizing effect. Meeting participants who may have been less vocal in an in-person setting feel more obliged to participate or say their piece, increasing collaboration.”
A solid majority of respondents (79%) said their boards have improved effectiveness in the past 12 months, and 66% say they’ve seen improvements in collaboration.
And boards have generally increased attendance when traveling is no longer necessary. This last point was certainly true, and particularly for boarding schools, whose trustees are generally more geographically dispersed than day schools. Increasing the virtual meeting schedule and reducing in-person expectations can also open up schools’ trustee candidate pool. A report from Harvard Business Review confirms that when board meetings are virtual, “not only is attendance 20% higher, but meetings are also 30% shorter.”
Kunzler offers two pieces of advice for navigating governance in the foreseeable future, “First, streamline online meeting tools so that boards aren’t using a ‘hodge-podge’ of applications that generate confusion and amplify frustration.” It’s clear that Zoom will continue to serve as the platform of choice for many independent school trustees.
Make informed decisions regarding face-to-face and virtual meetings in the coming year, and “if you do have an in-person board meeting, avoid having some participants Zoom in,” advises Kunzler. Instead, designate some meetings as fully in-person and others as all-remote. “We [have] all experienced the ‘hybrid’ meeting where some are in the room, and others join by video or phone. Don’t repeat this mistake.”
And while we think about navigating the virtual waters of governance in the coming year, it’s my pleasure to recognize the following individuals who began their first term as members of the NBOA Board of Directors on July 1, 2021:
- Jill Fields, Senior Vice President, Not for Profit Banking, SunTrust now Truist, Washington, DC
- Ed Griffin, Chief Financial Officer, Pomfret School, Pomfret, Connecticut
- Beth Pollard, Assistant Head of School for Finance and Operations, Darlington School, Rome, Georgia
- Mark Mitchell, Vice President, National Association of Independent Schools, Washington, DC
- Lisa Turchan, Chief Financial Officer, The Buckley School, Sherman Oaks, California
While the delivery of education is the mainstay of our work, good governance is often what separates good schools from great ones. It requires our time and attention as we navigate another unpredictable school year.
As ever, if you have any success stories or lessons learned with your school’s trustees meetings and governance structure this past year, please share them with us.
Follow President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, August 24, 2021. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.