This page offers a brief summary of what In Trust has learned from our trustee-readers in a mail survey, three focus groups, and two seminars. Are the top concerns reported your concerns? Please take a moment to let us know your agreement or disagreement by fax to 202/342-3984 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“How can we stop allowing the tyranny of the urgent to run our meetings,” a theological school trustee asked plaintively at a recent focus group session. That trustee, like many colleagues, is eager to learn ways to keep the attention of his board focused on long-term planning and development questions.
Finding techniques to make the best use of limited governing board time is one of the key themes that emerged from an exploration of the thinking of trustee readers of In Trust that was conducted over the past few months. Funds provided by the Lilly Endowment enabled In Trust to survey one-tenth of its trustee readers by mail and to commission the Learning Systems Group of Denver, Colorado, to probe the concerns of trustees in focus groups convened in Chicago; Berkeley, California; and Boston.
What we learned from that research, augmented by data collected at two recent In Trust seminars on building better boards, is summarized in this report.
The mail survey, sent to 550 readers, elicited 100 responses that were equally divided between lay and ordained trustees; 35 per cent of them had served five years or less, 43 per cent from six to ten years, leaving a surprising 22 percent who’d served on their boards more than a decade. Indeed, two respondents reported they had served more than thirty years!
Issues of financial management and development were listed as their board’s chief concerns by 37 per cent of the respondents, by far the most frequently mentioned items. Questions of board philosophy and commitment were mentioned as major challenges by 16 percent, and 10 percent cited enrollment or other student issues. No other challenge to the board got out of the single digits.
The smaller numbers, however, included at least two hot-button challenges: improving the working relationship between the board and the faculty, including the question of whether academic tenure serves the best interest of today’s theological schools; and recruiting, evaluating, retaining, and possibly dismissing the chief executive. One trustee, who chose not to supply a name (“for obvious reasons”), said bluntly the top question before his (her?) board was “keeping or replacing our president.”
Nearly a quarter of the respondents (23 percent) said they wished they had known more about the issues of administration and governance when they first joined their boards; 12 percent regretted they hadn’t known more about financial management and 12 percent felt they had been insufficiently informed about theological education. Another 9 percent felt they hadn’t known enough about development and fund-raising. These responses suggest actions boards might take as they refine or design their procedures for orienting new board members.
The three focus group sessions, which provided opportunity for two-and-a-half-hour structured conversations with trustees of sixteen schools (and an administrator from a seventeenth), could not offer quantitative data because of the nature of the process. But comparison of the themes that emerged in three different places—the similarity of the issues raised was striking—offered some assurance that the ideas voiced were not flukes but represented broadly held current concerns of seminary trustees.
They had notable similarities as well to issues raised in the mail survey. Leading the list of focus group participants’ perceptions of major board challenges was the board’s responsibility for ensuring the financial viability of the institution in ways beyond simply contributing personally to the school. They also spoke of finding ways to increase enrollment, and often expressed readiness to study market trends and adapt curricula to provide students with the educational offerings they appeared to want.
Pushing more deeply, most participants expressed concern or agreed with others’ concern about the difficulty of changing habitual ways of operating even when a new kind of student seems to require it. And many mentioned frustration with faculty members who seemed not to recognize the need for change.
Focus group members were eager to improve their methods of orienting new board members to get them participating fully faster.
At one of the recent In Trust seminars, a participant proposed a striking stratagem that would combine new-member orientation with evaluation of the meeting’s effectiveness. Devote time at the end of the meeting to let new members question any action they didn’t understand, he said. Chances are some other members didn’t understand either.
Participants in the other seminar heard dramatic evidence of why so many board members see finance as such a challenge. As the seminar drew to a close, one participant president disclosed he and his trustee colleagues had found it imperative to call the school every time they changed planes on their way to the meeting. Why? They were calling to determine whether the comptroller was going to be able to meet the payroll.
P.S.: He was!