Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
May 9, 2019
Nearly every faith-based school has some kind of board. It may be called a commission or a council. It may be advisory or policy-setting. But there is some group that provides community representation and guidance to assure the school is responsive to, and supported by, the community it serves. Linking to the communities they serve is of paramount importance for faith-based schools. But how boards function in that connecting role can seem more like alchemy that science. They vary in their authority, structure, level of engagement and operating style.
It’s often difficult for board members and others to put their finger on just what the board is supposed to be doing and how it should do it. A good place to start is understanding what kind of board a school has. This post reviews the variations and their ramifications. Think of it as sort of a field guide for boards.
To identify what kind of Board your school has, the first characteristic to look at is its authority. If the board is a true governing body, it sets high-level policy, hires, evaluates and dismisses (when necessary) the chief administrator and has ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the assets of the school.
However, many boards are advisory only. Their schools are generally owned by their religious sponsor, like a diocese, parish or a religious order, which therefore has ultimate authority and fiduciary responsibility. So the local board is advisory only, offering various perspectives and expertise but not itself setting policy.
There are advantages to a school being owned by its sponsor, especially if that entity has deep pockets and robust staffing to deal with the challenges that arise. Unfortunately, that circumstance is becoming rare. Religious orders and dioceses are finding themselves stretched thin and not able to meet the financial needs of their schools. Unfortunately, the response has often been to simply close them.
But most orders, and now many dioceses, are moving beyond ownership, recognizing that they can assure fidelity more effectively through sponsorship processes. They are shifting governance to more autonomous local boards. For this shift to local governance to work, however, requires accountability for the mission entrusted by the sponsor, and unfortunately, advisory boards are ill-equipped to shoulder that responsibility.
As governance has evolved, some faith-based schools find themselves with more than one board. They may have a Board of Directors or Trustees, which has policy making authority. But they may also have above them a group known as Corporate Members or a Board of Members, who retain ultimate ownership authority.
A Corporate Member can be a bishop, a religious superior or her or his delegates. They will often reserve a few key powers, like setting the by-laws or approving large financial transactions, and delegate all the rest to the local governing board. This structure is one way to assure fidelity to the faith-based mission, but empower the local community to take responsibility for the school’s operating needs.
Some schools have an advisory board in addition to a governing board. And some schools have three levels of governance: a Member Board, a Governing Board, and an Advisory Board. Multi-tiered governance structures are cumbersome and lead to confusion about who is responsible for what.
Most schools are evolving toward a single Board. Religious orders which have relied on Boards of Members to oversee the governing boards are finding it more effective to use a sponsorship process much like accreditation. And governing boards, rather than maintaining a separate advisory board, find it more effective to use their own committee structure to involve additional people.
Regardless of authority and structure, to be effective, boards must have a high level of engagement.
In my work with schools, I have found that many boards are passive. They meet rarely, and when they do they mostly hear reports from the administration. Other boards are more active in their engagement and have clear responsibilities, like approving the budget or high-level personnel policies. Still others are proactive, using strategic planning to prepare the school for new realities in the years ahead.
And some boards are overactive, crossing into operational areas that are best entrusted to the school administration. The sweet spot for boards in most cases will be the pro-active level. Here the school receives the full benefit of the board’s collective expertise without the intrusion into operational concerns that it has neither the time nor agility to address effectively.
The final characteristic for identifying your board is its style, which can vary from informal to formal. An informal style may be attractive because it feels simpler and more expeditious. As boards evolve however, they need more consistent processes and written procedures as a way to make sure that complex matters are addressed appropriately.
For example, they may feel that bringing on new members without a formal vetting and nominating process is working just fine. In many cases, it probably is. But it is difficult to achieve the diversity, community leadership and skill sets of a high performing board without a thoughtful selection process.
So what kind of board does your school have, and what kind of board does it need?
Do you have an advisory board because your school is owned by your order or diocese? It may be increasingly difficult to find consistent and robust support from your sponsor because their resources are spread thin. But you may also find an advisory board to be passive, because it doesn’t bear ultimate responsibility and wouldn’t have the necessary authority if it did. Your challenge is to find ways to empower it by entrusting it with meaningful responsibility.
Do you work in a multi-level governance model, where making decisions can be cumbersome, and it’s not always clear who has what responsibility? Your challenge is to achieve clarity and a high level of trust among the different players. This requires sustained attention to process and personalities.
Is your board operating more like a mom and pop outfit than the governing board of an important and complex organization? Your challenge will be to help the board understand the importance of its work and commit itself to processes that better match the caliber, or desired caliber, of the school.
Any of these models can be made to work, but it requires recognizing which reality you’re living in, and what challenges stem from your model. Responding thoughtfully will move the school toward a governance structure that will better match its current and future needs. The effort may be complex and at times taxing. But it is probably the most important thing you can do to assure your school’s viability in the face of the challenges ahead.