This is abridged from "Holding Itself Accountable: The Board's Responsibility for Self-Assessment," which appeared in 2003 in Theological Education (volume 39, number 2). It is reprinted with the permission of the Association of Theological Schools.
Part II of the article, "An Apologetic for Board Assessment," will appear in the Summer 2006 issue of In Trust. With the permission of ATS, the full article can be read now.
|Rebekah Burch Basinger is In Trust's director of program development. She lives in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.
(PHOTO BY GREG SCHNEIDER)
Although trustees are the usually forgotten players in the assessment movement, the ATS Standards include the work of the governing board among the aspects of institutional life targeted for periodic evaluation. This article looks at the benefits that derive from a regular, formalized process of self-assessment by the governing board using the wording of Standard 22.214.171.124 as a starting point.
Parsing ATS Standard 126.96.36.199
The board has the responsibility to hold itself accountable for the overall performance of its duties...
The ATS standard is clear as to where the buck stops when it comes to board assessment. It is the board which bears ultimate responsibility for evaluation of its own effectiveness. Trustees may look to the president for assistance in designing and carrying out assessment activities, and his or her understanding of and advocacy for regular evaluation of the board's work is crucial to the success of any effort. Indeed, encouraging boards in their assessment activities is one way that presidents can show their respect for their boards. But in the end, assessing itself is board work.
That said, the idea of trying to squeeze one more thing into already jam-packed meeting agendas can be too much for trustees to contemplate. But in the wake of recent scandals in the corporate world and continuing leadership problems within the nonprofit community, a board's attention to its own performance has never been more important. If a board fails to live up to constituency expectations, it takes a long time for the institution to recover the public's trust, and especially so for religious organizations. In contrast, seminaries that are blessed with strong and self-reflective boards are better positioned to attract the financial resources, goodwill, and quality people necessary for long term success and vitality.
... and shall evaluate the effectiveness of its own procedures.
I've encountered many presidents who are disappointed in the board members with whom they must work. The myth that every other board is stronger, wiser, richer, and more engaged is alive and well within the world of theological education. And while the myth is repeated most often in schools where all or a majority of the membership is appointed by denominational authorities or a religious order, presidents of free-standing seminaries do their share of complaining as well. It seems that underperforming boards can be found in theological schools of every kind, size, and theological stripe, which may suggest that the problem with boards isn't with the people serving on them, but rather with the policies and practices that shape trustee service. It is appropriate then that Standard 8 encourages boards to evaluate the effectiveness of their procedures. As is true for most groups, seminary boards tend to fall into familiar patterns of doing things. Committee structures are maintained without much thought, meeting agendas differ little from one meeting to the next, and boardroom protocol can discourage a true exchange of ideas. There is a basic uniformity in the way a board works, regardless of changes in the operating environment, within the institution, or in the board itself.
In contrast, strong boards understand that a one-size-fits-all set of board practices isn't likely to serve the institution well over time or in every situation. Just when a board hits its stride, a shift in administrative or board leadership, a sharp decline in funding, or a new direction in the seminary's programming can challenge "business as usual." But regular assessment allows the board to check whether their procedures are working for or against their best efforts and to make changes as needed. Trustees may think of their board's life as a given, but it can be examined and questioned.
It should also seek to educate itself about the issues it faces...
A well-informed board is a more effective board, and to this point, the standard urges trustees to educate themselves about the issues facing the seminary and theological education at large. The board should look first at information related to the current situation of the institution, including data specific to top priorities of the seminary. In all cases, the information provided to board members must be germane to institutional priorities and the board's concerns. Boards don't need to know (nor can they know) everything, but what they do know must be accurate, easy to comprehend, and conducive to governance decisions.
A regular schedule of board assessment encourages trustees to ask questions, seek out information, consult advisors, and develop orderly plans for the future of the school. As board members focus on educating and equipping themselves for their leadership role, they're also better able to identify and make use of individual talents and connections. In this way, the board models for the rest of the seminary community what it means to be a learning organization -- a place where people at all levels of the operation are empowered to make their best contributions in support of the mission and ministry of the school.
... and about procedures used by effective governing bodies in carrying out their work.
Interest in institutional governance is strong these days, and as a result, there's no shortage of helpful information from which trustees of theological schools can select. But ready availability doesn't necessarily mean board members are taking advantage of the resources that are out there. Indeed, it's the rare trustee who takes the time to track down materials on his or her own. For the most part, it's up to the board development committee, the board chair, or the president to seek out and make available materials and experiences that help educate trustees to the procedures used by effective governing boards. The leadership can also encourage trustees who serve on boards of other nonprofits to share best practices and good ideas encountered in their other "leadership lives."
It has been my experience that there's nothing quite as invigorating to trustees as the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their counterparts from other seminaries. In the early 1990s, I was privileged to direct a Lilly Endowment-funded project for the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities that included as one of its many activities the opportunity for bringing together board members from several institutions for conversation around a topic of shared interest. Initially, there was concern whether board members would give up an extra weekend to participate, but in the end, the regional gatherings were well attended and trustees went away enthused by the opportunity to learn from and be with board members of other church-related colleges. More recently, I've seen this same enthusiasm in the president/board teams that have participated in In Trust's Good Faith Governance Seminars. The good news is, presidents and board leaders don't have to wait for someone else to plan (and fund) these sort of events. Any board can extend an invitation to trustees of neighboring theological schools to come be part of an evening, day, or weekend of conversation and shared learning.
The board shall evaluate its members on a regular basis.
While it's true that the whole of a good board is greater than the sum of its parts, the performance of each member is crucial to the overall effectiveness of the group. So it is important that regular assessment activities include an evaluation of individual board member performance. On the face of it, this may seem an uncivil thing when talking about volunteer work, but in reality, it is the most civil and grateful thing we can do.
No one accepts a board position with the intention of doing shoddy work, yet complaints about the quality of board performance continue to surface and too many trustees report feeling dissatisfied with their board service. But when there are problems with board members, or when performance of the board fails to live up to what is desired, it is usually the system that's the culprit. In places where expectations of the board are high, where trustees are treated with respect, and where attention is paid to the system within which the board operates, it's amazing how board members grow in their enthusiasm for and understanding of their work.
General Institutional Standards
8. Authority and Governance
8.3. The Roles of the Governing Board, Administration, Faculty, and Students in Governance Processes
8.3.1. The Governing Board
188.8.131.52. The board has the responsibility to hold itself accountable for the overall performance of its duties, and shall evaluate the effectiveness of its own procedures. It should also seek to educate itself about the issues it faces and about procedures used by effective governing bodies in carrying out their work. The board shall evaluate its members on a regular basis.
This article is abridged from "Holding Itself Accountable: The Board's Responsibility for Self-Assessment," which appeared in 2003 in Theological Education (volume 39, number 2). It is reprinted with the permission of the Association of Theological Schools.