board strength Let’s continue our consideration about how great institutions inevitably are anchored by great boards. I suggested previously that the path to improvement should begin with a frank assessment of how well your board is functioning. We can frame the central issues of high board functioning by means of three questions:

  • Do we have written policies addressing the board’s culture, conduct, and commitments?
  • Do we have a plan to optimize board composition and continuity?
  • Is there a board committee responsible to assess and improve the board’s individual and collective performance?

Recent posts have focused on the first of those three questions. We now move to considering the second board ownership question: Do we have a plan to optimize board composition and continuity? Let’s take these issues in reverse order: continuity, and composition.

The resilient fabric of board continuity

When I joined ABHE, we had an incredibly dedicated board. But there was a problem. Although board terms of office were staggered (a very good practice), association bylaws prohibited multiple board member terms. Thus, at least one-fourth of our 12-member board (based on 3-year term length and the inevitable attrition) was new every year. Board members scarcely got up to speed on major strategy and policy issues before their tenure expired.

Another ministry nonprofit board on which I served had the opposite problem—one I have observed to be more common among college boards. A significant number of board members had served for many years, even decades. And in many of those cases, their board service had more to do with sentimentality or status than with strategic contribution.

How do you avoid these extremes? By ensuring that board members may serve a limited number of staggered terms before mandatory rotation off the board for some modest interval of time. Rotation of “classes” (which can be set arbitrarily when a rotation system is instituted) minimizes the risk that a significant percentage of the board may need replacing in any given year. Term limits—especially when accompanied by candid self-evaluation and board membership committee evaluation—afford more opportunity for the board, and each individual member, to assess whether ongoing board service is warranted. When boards lack a term limit system and rigorous board member service reviews, there is no graceful way for unengaged and underperforming board members to bow out.

The resplendent fabric of board composition

Not only do great boards have well-defined, board-managed patterns providing for board continuity, they also have well-conceived schemes to ensure breadth and depth in board composition. By board “composition” I am not referring exclusively or even primarily to the distribution and diversity of board member expertise. On balance, it would be a good thing if your board included individuals with expertise in areas such as the following: finance and investment, legal, risk management, higher education, church and marketplace ministry, to name a few.

I am referring rather to the major ways in which board members contribute to the success of the college. One scheme by which to illustrate this concept is the following:

Work – capacity to contribute time and specific expertise (see above)

Wisdom – the evident gift of perspective; strategic insight; experience

Wealth – personal stewardship capacity or strong resource connections

Witness [aka Wallop] – lends high credibility and clout to your college

You should be able to identify each of your board members with at least one, and preferably two, of the above primary contributions to your mission. Before you and your board start recruiting new members, assess the distribution of your board’s compositional strengths and look to achieve comprehensiveness and balance.

Do your board bylaws and policies ensure adequate board continuity and appropriate board composition? Does the board own its responsibility to make provision for these things? If not, you have work to do.

My next post will take up the question of board ownership more directly. Let’s keep the conversation going.


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