Characteristics of the Effective Board: A Trinity of Board Strength (Pt. 1)

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  • Robert F Davis
By Robert F. Davis, CP Guest Contributor
January 14, 2014|6:00 am

It was at the Union League Club in Chicago that a group of Christian educators were meeting to attend seminars and presentations. I was invited to speak to board chairs and headmasters on the subject, the "Characteristics of the Effective Board." As a subtitle for my presentation I chose "A Trinity of Board Strength" focusing on three statements: "A school is only as strong as its board wants it to be." "Success demands a strong board." and "While a strong board doesn't guarantee a strong school, every strong school has a strong board."

As an example of strong governance I was taken by an article, "Profiles in Prosperity" which outline the progress of Estonia, a country a little smaller than West Virginia, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. As the first to break away, Estonia was not afraid to take a stand, think, and act strategically. Among their actions were at least seven initiatives: Estonia set back clocks one hour to do business with Western Europe instead of Moscow. They signed a free-trade agreement with the European Union. Encouraged and achieved high church attendance to the Lutherans and not the Russian Orthodox. The State, on the other hand, chose to affiliate with the Eastern Orthodox. A flat tax was adopted for corporations and persons. Tariffs were eliminated and Estonia became duty free. Then, to top off all of these economic reforms, they raised Estonia's economic score to tie worldwide with the United States.

This is a living example that Christian schooling must follow, such bold action as to break loose from old paradigms and either re-engineer or create new ways for Christian education to succeed. This will take a strong board which takes the lead from St. Paul, "Whatever you are doing, put your whole heart into it, as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men, knowing that there is a Master who will give you your heritage as a reward for your service." (Colossians 3:24 & 24 NEB)

The First Characteristic for Effectiveness:  Understanding Primary Roles and Functions

I arrived at a 105 year old school in New Jersey to guide the board in the development of a strategic plan. I asked to see their "mission statement" and was told they had none. 105 years old and no "mission statement." It is a board's responsibility to know the "mission" and to see that it is achieved. Belief in and enthusiasm for the "mission" attracts board candidates and creates the desire to help toward success and the realization of full educational potential. A school's programs, goals, objectives, and budget must be consistent with the "mission." As secretary of a not-for-profit board I controlled meeting agendas and discussion using the "mission statement" to keep everything on track.

Keeping on track shouldn't be difficult. Board responsibilities are clear cut. As owners of the school, following the "mission" helps to maintain institutional continuity, stability, and integrity. I have always found two things to be striking when interviewing a board. After asking board members about the "mission statement," which most don't know, I ask what their responsibility is and how many employees report to the board. Waffling best describes their response. Boards are responsible for establishing policy, assuring financial stability, and hiring the one employee who reports directly to the board, the chief executive officer.

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This one employee, the only one hired by the board, enters into a relationship which is routinely recognized as the single most important relationship that exists within the organization, that of the governing board and the head-of-school. Each side of this relationship relies on the other, discovering and developing the traditional responsibility of efficient allocation of time and resources. Board members expect that their talents and capabilities will be used in ways which will truly be: helpful to the school, interesting, instructive, and rewarding. The head-of-school expects he will be permitted to lead, inspire, and manage as the personification of the character of the school. When this "partnership for success" exists, effective board members and school heads are attracted to an institution.

"Partnering for success" encourages, maintains, and defines roles of responsibility. The partnership maximizes individual strengths and ensures that strategies, tactics, and activities are positioned for success. By recognizing head-of-school authority and placing confidence in him the board then will not meddle, but reach out to acquire the resources required to grow and remain viable. The board's fundamental corporate responsibilities are few, but are precise and critical, actively involved in the advancement of the institution.

Assembling and recruiting candidates capable of fulfilling the aforementioned is a formidable task needing care and profound insight.

Robert F. Davis has 40 years of experience providing counsel for educational and not-for-profit institutions. He previously served as vice president for Advancement at Bryan College in Tennessee and consulting vice president for Advancement and Alumni Affairs at Liberty University in Virginia.
 

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