Mission Fit is a Board Priority

mission fitOn October 26-27, heads of school and board members from schools across the Coalition will convene in Chicago for our  Leadership Conference which will focus on the features and competencies of a high-functioning board.  For our school leaders, of course, this focus is a daily  responsibility and priority.  As we turn our attention to the issue of board development and management, I asked Rev. John Finley, co-founder and head of school at the Epiphany School in Boston, MA for the last 18 years, what he deems to be the most important elements  for managing a high-functioning board at a NativityMiguel School.

Reinforce the Mission Always:

Like all of our schools, Epiphany must raise substantial funds each year from various philanthropic sources (foundations, individuals and corporate partners)  to remain accessible to and effectively educate the students who are most in need.  Epiphany has a strong record of securing the necessary funds and is now in growth mode as they prepare to open a pre-kindergarten program in the neighborhood.

Yet John is very clear that Epiphany’s Board of Trustees is not a development tool. This is an important distinction to understand.  Many individuals who serve or have served on the board have given and will continue to give generously to the school, yet individuals are not asked to serve on the board because they give, may give in the future, or have access to individuals who can give.  This is the purpose and responsibility of a solid development plan executed by a solid development team.  John emphasizes that every trustee is asked to give at whatever level they can because this is a good development practice, not an effective board practice.

Rather, individuals are asked to join the Board of Trustees because they understand and believe in the mission and are committed to oversee and make decisions in the best interest of the mission.  John does not exaggerate here; anyone who is asked to serve on Epiphany’s board really gets and really believes in the mission.  He puts it this way: the best board members have been “kicked in the teeth by the mission.” They know that the educational mission is hard work and “not all rainbows and rose petals.”  He values a trustee who can identify with the struggle that the mission entails as much as be inspired by the celebration.

With this mindset, John and his team continually seek ways to  engage trustees in the life of the school. Trustees talk regularly with students, teachers, and other voices within the school to build a real connection with the mission.  New trustees have a trustee mentor who provides the necessary personal support and information for a smooth transition.  Each trustee understands their role on the board and is expected to actively advocate on behalf of the school and its mission.

John acknowledges that membership on the Board of Trustees does not deliver prestige, or local newspaper coverage, or better chances to get a child accepted to the school.  Membership is for high-quality persons with noble and pure motivations who are cooperative, mission-driven, and love being a part of the board. 

Establish a Committee on Trustees:

Epiphany’s Committee on Trustees is charged with attracting new trustees and supporting current members.   Just like a leadership team, faculty or staff, getting the right people on board (literally) is vital.  Epiphany has 30 trustees and a pool of generally 30 candidates who are being considered and vetted to fill vacancies as needed.   The full Board meets five times a year and committees (a total of nine including the Committee on Trustees) meet monthly.

Epiphany also established a Board of Overseers that meets twice a year.  With over70 members, this Board widens the circle of dedicated individuals who are fully informed about the success and challenges of Epiphany and ready to step up as needed.

Members of both the Board of Trustees and the Board of Overseers are asked to attend two events per year; the school’s annual gala each spring and the school’s open house, which is designed for parents and yet allows all members of the school community to observe classes, connect with one another, and better understand the critical educational mission and the school’s vision moving forward.

These opportunities allow John, the Board Chair, and the chair of the Committee on Trustees to confidently assess and nominate the individuals who best meet the criteria for membership on the Board of Trustees.  John compares the Board of Overseers to a farm system that is stocked with Board of Trustees potential. The Board of Overseers also allows Members of the Board of Trustees who cycle off the board to stay connected in a more formal, meaningful way.

(Please note: Leaders of member schools who are interested in accessing materials on Epiphany’s Committee on Trustees may contact Terry Shields via e-mail or by phone.) 

Assess the Performance of the Head of School:

John values that the Board of Trustees is effectively engaged in the evaluation of his performance and holds him  accountable to yearly goals concerning student achievement and formation, fundraising, growth, professional development, facilities, and more.  The 12-person committee comprised of Trustees and other appointees also gathers feedback from teachers and key stakeholders and identifies common threads throughout the data and comments.

Through the evaluation process, John appreciates that he is employed by the Board with certain expectations to fulfill and the Board better understands that they are not playing back-up to John’s leadership.  By no means should such a process micro-manage the head of school.  Rather, an effective evaluation process empowers the board to oversee that all are working together to accomplish whatever goals have been set for the school. 

One final word …

John remarked that the greatest challenges are often in the small details.   For example, finding the right location, date, and time for a meeting may seem a Herculean feat at times but the result of more people present, nodding, talking, laughing, and interacting with one another is well worth the effort .  While there will be many  effective board practices identified over the coming weeks and at our Leadership Conference, the importance of authentic presence should not go unnoted as a potential key to board success.

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