From category archives: In Trust Blog

Governance Best Practices

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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New guidelines for governing boards (part 2)

The new Statement on Board Responsibility for Institutional Governance begins with the obvious: that higher education is a broad, diverse social sector with multiple forms of organization and governance structures. (See Part 1 of this post for an initial overview of this document.) Theological schools are included under this big educational tent, but at first glance there's a lot in the statement that does not seem to directly apply to our unique institutions. Unfortunately, theological schools often isolate themselves from the rest of higher education with claims of uniqueness. Yes, theological schools offer distinct forms of education and training, but they often are often inhibited by what is sometimes called the "uniqueness paradox." This refers to a commonly held belief that one institution is so different, so unique, that it cannot be compared to peers, and that common wisdom cannot apply to it. The paradox is that such claims need only be made when the institutions are so si ...

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New guidelines for governing boards (part 1)

Last month the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) published a revised Statement on Board Responsibility for Institutional Governance. First produced in 1998, the statement was updated in 2007 following an intensive investigation of the role of the president in higher education. As a major voice in the often-turbulent and highly political matrix of faculty, administrators, and accrediting bodies, AGB does not publish such statements without careful deliberation. A quick overview of this announcement reveals that much of the report represents mainstream, contemporary perspectives on educational governance. A closer -- and highly recommended -- reading confirms that it intermingles critical perspectives on contemporary colleges and universities with what is today accepted as organizational common-sense that both governing boards and executive administration will find useful. Among the more important recommendations: Maintain a vigilant awareness of changing conditi ...

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Downsides of diversity

Wise and aware governing boards -- from the corporate suite to the fellowship hall -- are always looking to diversify their membership. However, an insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Diversity Can Backfire on Company Boards" shows that diversifying the board in ways that benefit the institution is not always easy. The authors explain: Blame it on human nature: As much as diversity is something we prize, the truth is that people often feel baffled, threatened, or even annoyed by persons with views and backgrounds very different from their own.  The result is that when [board members] are appointed because their views or backgrounds are different, they often are isolated and ignored.    When inviting those of different racial, ethnic, national, religious, and professional backgrounds to a board, it's possible for the majority to sabotage the effectiveness of the newcomers without even meaning to. Board leadership can unwittingly set them up as outlie ...

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Conflict on purpose

It's natural to avoid conflict. Negative feelings and attitudes come out of it, and conflict can easily spiral out of control once it rises to the surface. It is uncomfortable, uncivilized, perhaps even un-Christian to allow emotions to get the best of us. Why, then, would anyone want to incite conflict intentionally, especially in a Christian setting? Like many churches, some theological schools are characterized by a "culture of niceness." Like governance and leadership in any organization, life in a theological school can deliver bumps and bruises during day-to-day life. So why is it that the public discourse that surrounds decision-making, strategizing, and leadership sometimes sometimes sounds more like afternoon tea with the Queen? Sometimes it's helpful to ask what such a "culture of niceness" conceals. What work does it do within the organization? Jeffrey Jones suggests that cultures of niceness in organizational (and especially Christian) settings allows for the avoidance of dealing with deep, con ...

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Report reveals weaknesses in faculty-trustee relationship

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges recently released a new report on the role of faculty and trustees in shared governance. Inside Higher Ed reports on some of the findings: Most colleges (90 percent) have a faculty senate or similar governing body. At 59 percent of institutions, this body is considered "policy influencing," while 29 percent consider it "advisory" and 13 percent consider it "policy making." The influence of these bodies is considered "important" at half of institutions, and "very important" at 42 percent. Those surveyed either agreed (43 percent) or strongly agreed (54 percent) "that trustees, administrators, and faculty typically demonstrate collegiality, respect, tolerance, and civility towards each other. Most respondents agreed (54 percent) or strongly agreed (20 percent) that "policies and practices of shared governance are known, understood, and accepted by trustees, administrators, and the faculty," although a significant ...

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Staying on message when the news is bad

Damage control

The Nonprofit Quarterly has just published an excellent article about dealing with bad news. In the article, "Mission, Message, and Damage Control," author Kim Klein reminds administrators and boards that when there's bad news to share, it's all the more important to keep the organization's mission at the forefront.

Read the article here.


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