From category archives: In Trust Blog

Governance Best Practices

How to make a board handbook

Does your board have a handbook – either online or on paper?
If you don’t, you may be missing out on an important resource to help your board function at the top of its game.  

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It’s seldom one or the other -- it's both

Either/or thinking drives me crazy,
which helps explain my frequent dissents into madness (professionally speaking). Almost weekly, an exhausted executive director, overwhelmed development staffer, or out-of-breath board member gives me that “deer in the headlights” look when I suggest that the organization try walking and chewing gum simultaneously (metaphorically speaking).

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Answers to questions about boards and fundraising

Proof that
Whenever two or three nonprofit executives
gather together, fundraising and board members are sure to come up. And based on conversations to which I've been privy, there's not a lot of bragging going on. In fact, most of the nonprofit leaders with whom I work assume that every other board in town (the nation, maybe even the world) is more engaged than theirs -- but without solid facts on which to base the assumption.

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Are open trustee meetings a good thing?

In a recent article on the Inside Higher Ed website,
Academic Fantasies: Open Trustee Meetings,” John Lombardi examines a polished pillar of board leadership: the open board meeting (or as Lombardi describes it, that “theatrical forum where talented individuals play ritualized parts according to well prepared scripts”). 

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How big should your board be?

What is the optimal size
for a board of trustees? Do small boards work better than big ones? And how do you define big

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the risks of having a board that is too big to function appropriately, including poor communication, disengagement, diluted accountability, and the possibility that a small faction will be able to seize control.

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After bye-bye board member, then what?

For a season, board members throw their minds, hearts, and financial resources into your organization. Then they come to the end of their terms (or their endurance). That's the cycle of board life. Most nonprofit organizations handle well the sweet sorrow of parting as these special volunteers exit the boardroom. There are the tributes, the plaques, and parties. But after bye-bye board member, then what? Despite declarations of continuing devotion, absence seldom makes the heart grow fonder -- at least when it comes to former board members. Unless you are intentional about trying to stem the natural progression of things, all those years of service to your organization very quickly fade to a pleasant memory. Before you know it, bye-bye board member turns into good-bye friend. I've thought often about this challenge during my many years of consulting with, writing about, and serving on boards of faith-based organizations. It makes me sad when former board members drift away from causes to which they' ...

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"Give or get"? No, it's "govern"

Offering plates

If there's one thing that we can all agree on, it's that board members need to give, get, or get off the board. Right?

Maybe not, says governance researcher Bill Ryan. "Nonprofits do require funding, and governing does require nonprofit board members to think about funding," he says. "But all too often, this germ of truth mutates into a giant, fast-growing myth that ends up choking good governance to death."

This quotation is from a six-year-old article that caught my eye when it was reprinted recently in The Nonprofit Quarterly. It's short -- you can read the whole thing in about two minutes. But it's a healthy reminder that the first responsibility of the board is governance, not fundraising.


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The trustees' decision to fire Joe Paterno

The recent death of long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno spurred an outpouring of public grief that has, temporarily, overshadowed the tragic and tawdry circumstances of his firing last fall.  Just four days before his death, the New York Times published an article about the university's controversial decision to fire Paterno without warning, via a phone call. The article is based on an extensive interview with board members who wanted to set the record straight and defend their decision. To me, the most significant part of the interview is the trustees' description of how they were caught unaware by the scandal. They were not informed of the serious charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky until the media broke the story. The university president papered over its importance. And when the board wrote a press release to express sympathy with the victims, the president altered its wording before releasing it to the media. The article is a fascinating look at a scandal from the ...

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The role of edgy questions in strategic planning

If strategic planning is on the horizon for your organization, you'll want to take a look at the latest issue of Great Boards where contributing editor Barry Bader lists 10 edgy questions that can help clarify a board's thinking about the future. The article is written for governance leaders within hospitals and health care systems, but it's not much of a stretch to apply Bader's advice in your setting. Don't be put off by Bader's choice of the adjective "edgy" in the article's title. As he explains, "Edgy questions aren't disloyal, they reflect the ultimate loyalty -- that commitment to the mission and mutual trust are so strong that leaders can challenge themselves and never accept the status quo as the only alternative." You'll want to click on over to Great Boards for the full text. In the meantime, here are the questions, without Bader's commentary. Now for the questions As a first step toward clarifying the board's vision and testing the organization's progress, ask: "How will we know when w ...

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Pausing at the brink of big decisions: The premortem

Leaders of theological schools take risks in the name of fulfilling their missions. New initiatives require much planning and praying, and sometimes it's difficult for a board members to speak up with doubts about a proposed initiative, especially if the plan is gaining momentum, or if a key stakeholder has voiced support. Then, after the decision is made, everyone seems to remember that they were in favor of it -- even if the decision turns out to have negative consequences. How can seminary leaders address this dynamic? Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, suggests a technique called the premortem. The term comes from his colleague Gary Klein. A premortem is a thought exercise with a practical purpose. The time for a premortem is before an organization makes a significant decision. During a premortem, people who have been part of the planning meet and imagine that the decision has already been made and that plans went spectacularly wrong. Each participant spends 10 minutes writing ...

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Governing for this century

Scots Mission Hospital, Tiberias, in the 1940s

Imagine coming across this headline today:

Students must prove competency in key skills for 21st-century hospitals

Most of us would be shocked to read that med schools had not kept up with the times. But the Christian Century ran a similar headline this fall -- only it was about seminaries that are just now updating their curricula to meet the demands of the 21st century. Just imagine if other professional schools -- in medicine, engineering, or business -- were similarly slow in adapting.

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Questions for lawyers on boards, and the rest of us as well

Virtually every board with which I've consulted -- and believe me, that's a lot of boards -- is proud to count a lawyer or two (sometimes more) among its membership. In these litigious times, there's tremendous benefit in having legal eagles at the board table. But is board service as good for attorneys-turned-board-members as it is for the organizations they serve? It all depends, says Dan Pennington, a blogger for Slaw, Canada's online legal magazine. Board work, although wonderfully rewarding, is also remarkably risky and especially so for "directors with specialized knowledge and expertise, such as lawyers, who are held to a higher standard of care." Pennington has jotted down a list of questions for attorneys to ask before signing on for a term of service with a nonprofit board. Bracket out the couple of queries that are specific to persons with a law degree [editor's note: see items in italics below], and this is a great list for any and all board recruits. How well do I know this organ ...

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Strategic planning essentials for people with no time to waste

In Trust webinar on strategic planning

How do you allocate scarce resources to achieve your mission? How can you develop competencies to meet new market opportunities? How do you plan based on strategic assessments and insights and not just wishful thinking?

On February 22, In Trust Governance Mentors Robert Landrebe and Randy Thomann will tackle these tough questions and more during a webinar on "Three Strategic Planning Essentials for People with No Time to Waste."

This webinar is designed especially for presidents and board leaders, who can take part either together (gathered around a single computer) or separately (each participant online at home). The presenters are Robert Landrebe and Randy Thomann, both of whom have served as executive vice presidents of large institutions.

For more information, visit

A free resource for board orientation and development

In Trust's short primer on theological school governance, available as a PDF at, was released earlier this year. Anyone can view and print it, whether or not they are part of an In Trust member school. "Wise Stewards: The Roles and Responsibilities of Boards in Theological Education" outlines the essential components of governance in theological schools. It addresses board members in various settings -- governing boards of freestanding seminaries, advisory groups that oversee university-related theological schools, and boards assisting church authorities. The document begins with an outline of the context of theological education today:  A shifting religious landscape Student uncertainty An epidemic of personal debt A more diverse, more tech-savvy faculty The high cost of an expanded curriculum Enhanced public scrutiny A need for new financial models Next, six sections outline the chief elements of ...

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Tap a treasure trove of governance wisdom

Earlier this fall, more than 600 governance leaders from across the continent descended on Atlanta for a two-day confab on the newest thinking and practices in nonprofit governance. The folks at BoardSource describe their annual Leadership Forum as the "only national conference focused on the impact of nonprofit boards and the unique role they play in advancing the public good." I would have loved to take part in the assembly in Atlanta, but it didn't fit my schedule (or my budget). So now I'm tapping into the next best thing, the Leadership Forum website. BoardSource is working hard to ensure that no board -- or board junkie -- is left behind. I encourage you to click on over to the Leadership Forum 2011 Wrap-Up where you'll find a wealth of great resources for encouraging enhanced board performance. TWO TO CONSIDER If you have time for nothing else, take ten minutes to view the video below. This beautifully produced piece could be just the discussion starter you've sought for your next ...

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The future of seminary governance

If you could look into a crystal ball at the future of theological education, what would you see? The editors at have been wondering the same thing, and so they've assembled essays from an impressive list of seminary presidents, deans, professors, and other interested parties on the topic "The Future of Seminary Education" (or, more specifically, "Does the Seminary Have a Future?"). The responses include a substantive and wide-ranging interview with Daniel Aleshire as well as a "just the facts" reply from Barbara Wheeler, director of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge reflects on the role of seminaries in post-Christian and more diverse environments. Philip Clayton and Tony Jones write more explicitly about seminary education for the post-institutional emergent church. Gary Peluso-Verdend and Mark D. Roberts both suggest that laity should be the ultimate focus of theological education. All together, the series is l ...

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Diversity is inefficient but necessary

We've written about diversity several times on this blog and in In Trust magazine. Setting aside the thorny ideological and religious perspectives that are inherent in the topic, we believe that a diversity of opinions and experiences on a governing board makes practical sense: It brings new ideas and wisdom to the table from a growing world beyond the majority culture. But diversification isn't easy. And it certainly isn't efficient. Those who think and write about diversity know well that a diverse group of people can make for messy meetings and feelings of insecurity and uncertainty -- among those in the "majority" as well as those in the "minority." While wrestling with diversity, a board can get bogged down by inaction and ineffectiveness.  That's one reason why simply diversifying a group is not enough. There must also be meaningful engagement. A recent blog entry at the New Organizing Institute makes this case clearly. "[I]t turns out that diversity is not just ...

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The best of In Trust: The "Carver model" of governance

In 2008, In Trust program developer Rebekah Burch Basinger wrote a well-received article that explored "Policy Governance," which is often called the "Carver model" and is widely used by the boards of colleges, universities, seminaries, and other nonprofit organizations. 

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For the board's consideration: One sliced tuition, coming right up

Does a school ever lower its tuition? Over at the University of the South (commonly called "Sewanee"), that's what they're doing -- cutting total student charges (tuition plus room plus board) by about 10 percent.  There's a well-written article about Sewanee's price cut here by Scott Jaschik, the excellent reporter at Inside Higher Ed. But Jaschik's reporting is almost outshone by an easy-to-miss letter to the editor appended to the bottom of the article. In that letter, Miami University president emeritus Jim Garland offers his take on what's behind the tuition cut, and some important considerations for other schools that are thinking of taking this drastic step. Here's a portion of Garland's letter: Sewanee's decision to cut tuition by 10 percent reflects basic economic principles that, unfortunately, are not well appreciated by many private college administrations. In essence, Sewanee aims to pump up its enrollments by cutting tuition, hoping that its total revenues will increase, even tho ...

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"Wise Stewards" webinar

In Trust's recent webinar, "Wise Stewards: Exploring the Roles and Responsibilities of Boards in Theological Education," was designed to be helpful for orienting new board members, but it is also advanced enough for governance leaders with experience.

In Trust program developer Rebekah Burch Basinger and Governance Mentor Bill Myers led the webinar and answered participants' questions.

You can purchase the archived version of the webinar at

How to stop a wildfire

When we're in the middle of a bad situation -- whether a short episode or a prolonged, multiyear, downward trend -- we can default to tried-and-true methods of thinking and reacting. But often it's just these methods that allow a small problem to grow. Earlier this year, MIT's Sloan Management Review published a case study on how firefighters in New Mexico responded to a small grass fire that exploded into a major billion-dollar wildfire. The authors suggest that the first responders did not adequately analyze the early dangers or properly intervene in slowing the early momentum of the fire. From this case, the authors extrapolate important organizational lessons on what they call "dysfunctional momentum." They start with three basic observations about dysfunctional momentum: People intimately involved in a situation may not focus on issues that seem minor (like smoldering embers). After dysfunctional momentum is recognized, the situation must be interrupted if the momentum is to be stopped e ...

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Some donors want to call the shots

Luther Bowl huddle

Robert G. Burton, the chief executive of Burton Capital Management in Greenwich, Connecticut, is vying for the title of "Worst Donor Ever."

Over the last several years, Burton has given $7 million to the football program at the University of Connecticut. But in January, he wrote to the university's athletic director, saying that he wanted $3 million back. His reason? He wasn't consulted sufficiently when the new football coach was hired.

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Institutional ADD

Writing on the Faith and Leadership blog, Nathan Kirkpatrick notes two ways that institutional goals can fail: 1. "The mundane can defeat the audacious." That is, the unending grind of everyday work can make vision statements and strategic plans, which boards work so hard on, seem irrelevant to the staff.  2. "Institutional ADD." Kirkpatrick describes the problem as "the cynicism created when leaders so anxiously cast about in search of the next vision that they never invest fully in the present one."  The author suggests solutions to both of these challenges, which you can read in the full blog post. But the hardest problem for boards may be identifying these problems at all. As Kirkpatrick reminds us, "Creative leaders (and creative institutions with them) tend to thrive on idea generation, not idea implementation." Dreaming big dreams can be more enticing than making the old dreams into reality. One of the great gifts that a board can give to an institution is insisting on brutal honesty in ...

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Should boards oversee grant-writing?

The Autumn 2010 edition of In Trust featured a story titled "Seminary Kids." It reports the success of several seminary-based youth programs funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. Lilly originally funded more than two dozen of these programs, but only a handful were able to find successful pathways to institutional sustainability. The In Trust article suggests that the youth programs that were integral to the core missions of their schools were able to survive. In the early years of the youth theology initiative, many seminaries saw the low-hanging fruit from a friendly foundation and acted quickly to apply for grants to set up youth programs. Some of these may have neglected to give deep consideration to how a major grant would affect their mission and whether the grant-funded program would integrate into longstanding institutional goals and values. Board members are right to resist the urge to micromanage administrative decisions such as those related to funding decisions and foundation cultivation. But ...

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In Trust Board Builders: A study guide for "Maximizing the power of board policies"


Long before organizational theorist John Carver trademarked the words "Policy Governance," trustees depended upon informal or formal policies to guide their own work, the work of the chief executive, and the institution as a whole. But "policies" and "governance" are not synonymous, and a too rigid commitment to governing by policy can actually get in the way of a board's best performance. The following maxims point the way to making the most of your board's policies.

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