Get the Board You Need

As with many nonprofit organizations, independent schools rely on a board of trustees to be strong fiduciary leaders and to play a crucial role in the success of their advancement programs. So how can independent school leaders ensure they get the board members that they need? And how can they best support the process of identifying board candidates with essential characteristics – including the philanthropic capability – to oversee advancement efforts? From my experience in independent school fundraising, there are several steps you can take to build integrity and sustainability into the process of recruiting board members.

Focus on Building Strong Partnerships

Effective collaboration is key to fundraising success in independent schools, and a positive and supportive relationship between the Chief Advancement Officer (CAO) and the Head of School is especially critical. In many cases, before CAOs can work with the board to guide trustee recruitment and membership decisions, they need to encourage their Head of School to advocate for them to be in that role.

These two leaders must not only partner to determine the characteristics needed for future board candidates, but they must also frame and agree upon short- and long-term goals for their school. Both must be aligned on the requisite characteristics for new trustees, with strategic objectives in mind.

Ultimately, the CAO can be an extraordinarily valuable voice for the Head of School. This is especially true when it comes to expressing what could be delicate information to volunteer leaders to whom the Head of School must report. The Head of School must be able to work productively with all trustees, and the CAO can appropriately communicate a candidate’s suitability to the nominating committee.

“Before CAOs can work with the board to guide trustee recruitment and membership decisions, they need to encourage their Head of School to advocate for them to be in that role.”

Before board discussions about potential candidates take place, CAOs should review with the Head of School the candidates being presented for consideration. Together, they can decide how to prioritize those who are preferred and advocate to invite these individuals to serve at a specific time.

The CAO represents the school’s management team and can be expected to highlight the characteristics of prospective trustees that the management team has prioritized. In addition to philanthropic leadership, other characteristics may include expertise in finance, investment, buildings and grounds, marketing, and more. The CAO can also set the tone for discussions about prospective members and ensure that the focus is on characteristics rather than individual personalities.

The volunteer members on the nominating committee will change over time, so the CAO can provide the consistency necessary to establish sustainable systems with integrity and transparency. As I will describe later, the CAO is an important partner for the Head of School and the board chair in helping incoming members fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities successfully.

Streamline Recruiting with a Matrix 

I recommend that boards develop and use a matrix to organize the invitation and evaluation of prospective members.

The matrix should outline the desired qualifications and experiences for board candidates. It provides current members with a quantitative mechanism for visualizing and evaluating candidates objectively. This tool also allows information to be documented concisely and retained over time, as volunteer members of the board change, and responsibilities for inviting new members are reassigned. In addition, you can incorporate stages into the matrix to help track candidates as they progress – like “proposed, eligible, considered, nominated, and withdrawn.”

Among its many uses, a matrix equips leaders to make decisions with data-driven insight. And because it can be used to assess current members as well as prospective ones, it also helps provide a clearer picture of the current board makeup and reveals any gaps. These gaps could be in financial or legal expertise, representation of specific communities and values within the school, experiences that are necessary for strategic plan objectives, or other areas.

Use a matrix to help:

  • Encourage collaboration upfront to establish a framework with well-defined criteria
  • Promote transparency and efficiency, introducing a process that can be duplicated in future board recruiting efforts
  • Enhance the integrity of board leadership and school administration, helping eliminate the perception of favoritism and supporting an objective evaluation process
  • Enable boards to evaluate candidates for philanthropic leadership (instead of simply estimated wealth) in a less personalized way

A sample matrix might look like this:

Ensure a Successful and Rewarding Volunteer Experience 

In addition to helping staff the board nominating committee, CAOs also develop and support evaluation systems for the board as a whole and for individual trustees, and engage with campus partners in the new trustee orientation process.

In my experience, trustees are grateful for the opportunity to review their board experience annually. This can be accomplished with a simple form that rates responses from “unsatisfactory” to “very satisfied” and leaves room for open-ended, personal responses.

Members of the nominating committee can then follow up with the individual trustees for personal conversations about their evaluations.

Some sample questions to ask might include:

  • Are you adequately prepared for board decisions in advance?
  • Are the meeting materials provided on a timely basis, easy to understand, and relevant?
  • Have you been provided with opportunities to contribute your expertise and advice?
  • Does the board respect the opinions of all members?
  • Are communications from the school’s management team to the board regular and informative?
  • Are board meetings interactive and productive?
  • What would you like to know more about as an individual trustee?
  • How can staff better support trustees to govern?

As you tailor your board recruitment and evaluation processes, you will gain the confidence and partnership of your volunteer leaders. Your support for these volunteers and the use of tools such as a matrix will enhance the integrity of the board selection process and help you get the board you need.

If you are interested in learning more and applying these strategies to your school, please email Mary K. Carrasco at mcarrasco@grenzglier.com, or contact us below.

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About the author

Mary K. Carrasco

Senior Vice President

Mary K. Carrasco, Senior Vice President, brings more than four decades of experience to GG+A and the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. A respected leader in the independent school advancement community, Mary co-founded the CASE Independent School Leadership Group and chaired the 2012 CASE-NAIS Conference as well as the 2016-2020…