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Boards

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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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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Governing for this century

Scots Mission Hospital, Tiberias, in the 1940s

Imagine coming across this headline today:

MEDICAL SCHOOLS UPDATE DOCTORS' SKILL SET
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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Preserve the core -- all else can change

The Alban Institute recently posted a must-read essay about congregational leadership titled "When the Mission Changes." In it, author Dan Hotchkiss reflects on the critical times in a congregation's history where the mission of the community needs radical reconsideration. This involves more than reworking the verbiage in the mission statement, he says. "[W]hat if times change so much that the original mission starts to look like a mistake?" Can a theological school find itself in a similar position? Of course. And more than a few schools are already taking the radical steps of rethinking and redefining their missions for the 21st century. For example: The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology changed its name this fall from Mars Hill Graduate School, partly to distinguish itself from a church with a similar name but dissimilar theological positions. But in the major rebranding process, the school has focused its identity on progressive evangelicalism and zeroed in on what it does best: ...

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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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A free resource for board orientation and development

In Trust's short primer on theological school governance, available as a PDF at http://www.intrust.org/WiseStewards, 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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Maybe it's time to redefine the problem

Imagine this familiar scene: The old guard is sitting around a table, long-faced and bemoaning the bleak outlook for the next year. They have a meager budget, the competition has just cherry-picked their top talent away and cash is getting tight. So they start doing what they do every year: resort to their tried and true solutions to what have become perennial problems in order to survive. No, this isn't your last seminary board meeting. This is a scene from Moneyball, the new Brad Pitt film based on the true story of a struggling, demoralized Oakland A's baseball team. It takes place in 2001 when the team loses its top three players to better-paying teams. The A's face a choice: Do the same thing or do something different. And we all know the proverbial definition of insanity -- it was even mentioned in the Autumn 2011 issue of In Trust -- "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." So the team's general manager redefines the problem with the help of an u ...

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Shifting your message during times of crisis

Let's assume your school already has a mission statement, and it's a good one. But then something happens. There's an internal crisis -- perhaps a senior administrator is discovered in wrongdoing. Or there's an external challenge -- perhaps you learn that another seminary is opening an extension site in your back yard. You probably don't need to change your mission statement. But you do need to change your message! I recently came across a two-year-old article in The Nonprofit Quarterly that still seems completely relevant: "Mission, Message, and Damage Control." Author Kim Klein advises complete honesty with your constituents about the challenges that you are facing. But at the same time, she recommends tailoring your message to address the anxieties that both internal and external audiences may be harboring. Klein says that the first people who need to hear the new message are the people closest to the situation -- the staff and board. For these groups, institutional troubles may loom lar ...

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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 www.intrust.org/webinars.

Got any young board members?

How young is the youngest member of your board? Student representatives aside, do you have a board member who is under 30? Under 40? We live in a hyper-technological world where terms like "crowd-sourcing," "cloud computing" and "Moodle" are mainstream terms in the cultural lexicon. And the rising generation of seminary students is predictably different (demographically, ideologically, and theologically) from previous generations. It seems reasonable to think that leaders in their 30s and early 40s more intuitively understand some of these new opportunities -- and challenges -- and can help keep a board abreast of the changing realities of educational innovation. Recent research shows that almost two-thirds of nonprofit board members are over 50.  To be sure, many theological school boards have some (or all) seats chosen by bishops, conferences, or other church bodies, but many others are self-perpetuating and free-standing. When boards choose their own members, a myriad of factors deter ...

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