The Need for Trustee Orientation and Education

Jim Wickenden, Founder, Wickenden Associates
September 6, 2019

Having served on eight independent school Boards, I’ve sat through more than my share of new trustee orientation sessions. Most, unfortunately, tended to focus on minutiae such as the names of administrators, the calendar of meetings, and the physical layout of the school. Typically, the ways in which the school was governed were not discussed. The goals of the Head of School were not discussed. Annual charges to the Board committees were not provided. Recent Board self-evaluations (if they existed) were not shared. The “Dos and Don’ts” of trustee behavior were not specified. With one exception, none of the schools supplied a set of codified school policies previously adopted by the Board.

Taking the time to design and implement a thorough trustee orientation process is both a kindness to new members and an effective way to improve trustee productivity. Of course, trustee orientation should actually begin during the recruitment process, so that prospective members of the Board understand what they are committing themselves to. There should be no ambiguity about the accompanying financial expectations. While personal resources and the ability to give will vary from trustee to trustee, the willingness to contribute to the Annual Fund and periodic capital campaigns should not.

As an initial first step in promoting good governance, I would suggest that all trustees be provided with this list of roles of the board. While one can find many variations on the theme, this list is as good as any:

  1. Holds the school “in trust” by valuing, protecting, and acting in accordance with the mission.
  2. Sets policy, focusing on broad policy issues rather than operational details, and oversees the general operation of the school for policy compliance.
  3. Leads the fundraising effort through personal giving, solicitation of others, and oversight of the development plan.
  4. Oversees the finances of the school by setting appropriate tuition, approving the budget, and monitoring spending.
  5. Hires and guides the Head, while demonstrating public support of the Head and his/her administrative decisions.
  6. Plans strategically for the future through a formal planning process, with yearly goal-setting.
  7. Evaluates the performance of school, Head, and Board by defining measurable performance indicators and annually reviewing success in achieving mutually defined goals.

The educational process should not end with the orientation. An ongoing program of trustee education improves the quality of Board decision-making and can help to energize individual trustees. A regular infusion of information from outside the school family helps to guard against insular thinking and promote healthy questioning. The trustees with whom I have worked are individuals I respect, admire, and like. They also tend to be people who have incredibly busy lives. As a result, professional development initiatives must be engaging, stimulating, and genuinely helpful to them in discharging their governance responsibilities. Some trustees will be receptive to invitations to attend conferences and seminars, but many will prefer that the education be brought to them. For example, the Head and/or Board Chair can periodically distribute articles relevant to issues before the Board. From time to time, a portion of a regularly scheduled meeting can be devoted to a presentation from an outside expert about an issue confronting all schools or one that is particularly pertinent to this school.

Finally, Boards need to educate themselves on their own performance. Ideally, a Board self-evaluation would include: 1) a review of the Board’s performance in each of the roles it has defined for itself, 2) an analysis of the extent to which the Board accomplished the specific goals that were established for committees and the Board as a whole at the outset of the year, and (3) an opportunity to rate the nuts and bolts of Board processes and practices, including Board agendas and formats, committee structures, trustee recruitment and orientation, etc. The Board evaluation instrument should also include at least one open-ended question that allows trustees to offer specific suggestions for improvements. The Head of School and other senior administrators who regularly interact with the Board might be invited to weigh in. This information would then be used to set goals and refine Board procedures for the following year. Once a Board evaluation process is established, the results constitute a benchmark by which progress can be tracked from year to year.

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