How Does Your School Board Stack Up?
Survey Results from the 2018 AASSA Governance Conference
At the 2018 AASSA Governance Conference in Miami, Florida, CoreStrategies for Nonprofits asked visitors to its booth to complete a survey on their boards of directors. Our sample was small (N = 18) but represented 60% of the conference attendees. We thought you’d be interested in seeing how your school’s board stacks up against that of your colleagues and others. As the schools affiliated with AASSA typically use curricula and programs modeled on the US educational system, where possible we have provided statistics from US schools against which to compare yours. In addition, we are noting some proven governance practices for your school to consider as you plan for the future.
Board Size: The large majority of schools surveyed (16) have boards of 7 – 12. This is in line with the original US public school model typically adopted by international schools, but smaller than the average number of directors cited by BoardSource for US schools and government agencies in its most recent Leading with Intent study 2017, which is 15. According to Littleford & Associates, consultants to international schools worldwide, by 2016, the trend in international schools has been to increase the size of the board. That makes the other two schools that completed our survey and reported boards of 3 – 6, true outliers.
While there might be an average, there is no one idea size for a board. To determine what is best for your board, consider answering questions such as:
- To what degree do we require “reach” into the community – the ability to tap different circles of influence for fund raising and/or advocacy purposes?
- Will the proposed number give us the needed range of talent, diversity and reach?
- Will we have a balance of parents and others?
- Will we be able to do the work of the board with the number we are considering, without creating burnout?
- What are the pros of a board of “X” size? What are the cons?
- Why do we believe this is the right number for us?
- Would a board of a different size be seen as advantageous or detrimental in the greater community? Why?
Meeting Frequency:The greatest number of boards (70%) meet monthly. Two other meeting schedules were adopted with equal frequency: eight times a year and four times a year or quarterly.
The national average for school and government agency boards is 7.6 meetings a year, according to BoardSource’s 2017 study Leading with Intent. For those boards meeting quarterly, consider whether that is sufficient to engage your board directors and to enable them to meet their duty of care.
Term Limits: The majority (13 of 18 or 72%) of the boards reporting have term limits. This is the same percentage as in the US, again according to BoardSource.
While an increasing number of boards use term limits – and we, in fact, advocate for them – there are advantages and disadvantages to their use. Consider carefully what will work best for you. Avoid falling into the trap of thinking they are an easy way to rid the board of dead wood. You still need to have the difficult conversations with unengaged directors.
Director Engagement at School Events and Conferences: Here it was almost unanimous. In all but one case the board directors show up! That’s fabulous.
Question: Do they mingle with and welcome other attendees or stick to themselves? They need to mingle! People appreciate meeting the directors of organizations they support.
100% Board Giving: While close to three quarters of school boards (71%) reported that all their board directors make personal contributions, which is excellent, that still leaves a significant number of schools (23%) that cannot say that.
Today, funders, sponsors and individual donors want to know that all of the board directors give a personal gift. They tend to be less concerned about the amount, which means there is little excuse for not achieving 100% board giving.
Personal Giving: Most of the schools (83%) do not require a minimum level personal gift. Only one school reported doing so, and in two cases the respondents were not sure.
Over the last 25 years the movement has been toward the expectation of board giving in the US. While the culture of giving is different in Central and South America, if the individuals closest to an organization don’t believe in it enough to contribute to it, why should anyone else? Today, 51% of school and government agency boards in the US require personal financial contributions (Leading with Intent, 2017). This is significantly higher than the 11% reported here.
Minimum Personal Gift Required:The one school that required a minimum gift from its board directors, required $500 (US) or less.
Consider asking directors to make a personally meaningful gift. Help them define that for themselves by suggesting it be one of their top three philanthropic gifts for the year. When the expectation is expressed in a specific dollar amount, it means that the organization automatically excludes some very good people who cannot afford the stated amount and it gives those who can afford significantly more an easy out!
Requiring an “Ask”: One respondent did not know if their board directors are asked to solicit or “get” a minimum contribution of cash, goods, or services from others. The other 17 said they had no such requirement. But, it may pay to reconsider. In a 2015 study by the US-based National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the researchers found that boards with a greater ability to fundraise also tend to have a greater ability to strategize.
While schools may not wish to dictate a minimum “get,” directors tend to be more committed to the process of bringing assets into the organization if they can view the “get” as a means of fulfilling strategic initiatives. With that viewpoint, the assets need not only be cash. They could be, for instance, expertise.
Executive Committee: Almost two-thirds (61%) of the respondents indicated that their school boards had executive committees. This number is quite a bit smaller than the 79% NAIS found in its earlier (2012-2013) governance study and the 72% reported by schools and government agencies in BoardSource’s 2017 edition of Leading with Intent. We would hypothesize that this is good, but that we would like to see even a smaller number of school boards using an executive committee.
There has been a movement in recent years away from the use of executive committees. They have increasingly been found to leave the other directors on the board feeling disengaged. You will hear non-executive committee members complain that their role is limited to rubber-stamping decisions that have already been made. This is particularly true with the small boards reported here, where half of the board directors may be is excluded. This issue can be minimized if the organization’s bylaws severely limit the powers of the executive committee, but you may want to consider if the entity is even necessary.
Executive committees came into being in an era of large boards – often in excess of 50 directors – and minimal technology. It was helpful to have a group that could be called together quickly in time of a crisis to make an immediate decision. Today with smaller boards and the ability to pull everyone together on video conferencing, they are no longer essential.
Board Development or Governance Committee: The respondents were evenly split on this – half of the school boards reported having such a committee and half do not. This number appears low in comparison to the 81% of school boards participating in the 2012-2013 NAIS study, but favorably to the 40% reported in Leading with Intent (2017).
These committees evolved from the nominating committee when it was determined that organizations could benefit from a committee that went beyond creating a leadership slate once a year. Focusing on ongoing leadership development, the board development or governance committee is typically responsible for such activities as yearlong cultivation of potential directors, director orientation, ongoing board training, and board evaluation.
Non-directors on Committees: More school boards affiliated with AASSA permit non-directors to serve on their committees than not (72% to 28%).
Many organizations today are finding value in bringing non-directors onto committees wherever they can. It helps minimize director burnout, it brings added expertise to the table, and it serves as an excellent proving ground for potential directors. Be sure your local and federal laws and your own bylaws allow for this however.
Annual Self-assessment: Close to three-quarters of the sample respondents report that their boards ask their directors to assess themselves to determine what they are doing well and what they could do better. This is very good. In the 2017 Leading with Intent, only 41% of school and government agency boards do a self-assessment at least every 3 years.
The value of self-assessment – of both the board as a whole and the individuals serving on the board – cannot be overstated. Today, donors and other community stakeholders are looking for accountability. The board is responsible for ensuring results. If it is not accountable for its own behavior and accomplishments, how can it hold itself out as an honest overseer of the organization’s activities?
Strategic Plan: All of the boards represented in this survey have a current strategic plan. Congratulations!
There is an old adage that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Strategic planning is vital to ensuring the activities in which an organization engages are, in fact, the straightest trajectory to its vision. However, the plan is only valuable if it is reviewed for progress and needed changes on a regular basis. One way of guaranteeing that this happens is to organize each board meeting agenda around the strategic initiatives from the plan. Any reports should focus on these, as should the discussions.
Annual Board Retreat: Once again, the schools represented in this survey tended to exhibit accepted board practices – in this case, scheduling an annual retreat (72% that do versus 28% that do not). And, once again, this reflects significantly better than the 38% of school and government agency boards reporting regular retreats in the 2017 Leading with Intent.
Retreats offer an opportunity to spend concentrated time on issues that cannot adequately be covered in a board meeting. The time might be spent on such things as planning, evaluations, training, a crisis, or deep dive into a new opportunity that has presented itself. Equally important, retreats provide the chance for board directors to get to know one another better in a slightly different environment. This, in turn, improves working relationships throughout the year and, ultimately, performance.
Board Agenda: Most of the boards in this small study (63%) use a traditional agenda (welcome, minutes, reports, old business, new business, adjourn) for their board meetings. One of the respondents shared that their board’s meeting agenda consisted of a consent agenda, old business and new business. The agenda format used by close to a third of the respondents starts with a discussion of strategic initiatives and ends with a consent agenda.
The consent agenda can save a board a lot of precious time. It asks for an up or down vote on a number of (typically mundane) items at one time. This can be most effective if all the reports and updates are sent out ahead of the meeting and included in the consent portion of the agenda. If there is an issue in one of the reports that demands the board’s attention, that item can be pulled from the consent agenda and discussed separately. The time saved can then be used for discussion around strategic and critical issues, which are future focused (by definition, reports deal with the past). This not only allows more sufficient time for these discussions, but allows the board directors to use their knowledge and experience to govern. Such activity is engaging. It also benefits the organization. For a sample strategic agenda, click here and scroll down to “Governance Documents.”
Rating the Board: The large majority of the respondents in this small study (65%) rated their boards as “good.” Close to a quarter (23%) chose “excellent” and 12% felt that their boards are average. None felt that they needed different directors if they are to do their jobs.
Boards can bring so much to an organization. It behooves all of us to ensure we have the strongest boards possible.
While this is but a quick snapshot of the boards that attended the governance conference, we hope that it provides you with some insights for moving forward. If your school wasn’t represented at the conference, you might do a quick assessment to see how your board compares with those of your colleagues.
CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc. is an internationally recognized firm, established in 2002, that provides highly individualized and results-oriented counsel to nonprofit organizations. It helps nonprofit/NGO leaders interweave the proven practices of successful organizations around their organizations’ values and vision so that they can efficiently and effectively realize their organizational goals to create strong and healthy communities. We specialize in the areas of strategic and business planning, good governance, board building and development, board retreat facilitation, bylaws review, board chair/board/CEO relationships and board chair coaching. Find out more about CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., including our fund development, brand messaging and other services, at www.CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com or contact us at 888-458-5351, Ext. 83.