In my recent posts, I have been emphasizing that good governance requires that the board itself must own the responsibility and make provision for high functioning. Although the president can and should prompt and support the board in taking ownership, success in elevating governance effectiveness ultimately depends on the board itself. In previous posts, I have outlined proposals addressing the questions of board culture and commitment, continuity and composition. Next we turn to the mechanism necessary to ensure that these patterns and practices are consistently and effectively implemented: appointment and empowerment of a board development committee.
Find a committee structure that fits
There is no single best way to organize board committees. Many college boards establish committees corresponding to major administrative divisions. Often the C-suite level executive over each division (e.g., academic dean, business/finance operations VP, student affairs VP, advancement VP) meets with and staffs a corresponding board committee. More recently, some governance experts advise that forward thinking boards should establish committees corresponding to future strategic priorities rather than present structures. Other experts, seeking to remedy vulnerability to fiduciary failure that sometimes results from committee compartmentalization, argue that boards should be smaller, functioning more nimbly as a committee of the whole. I think each of these concepts is worthy of consideration and may prove the best fit depending upon institutional circumstances and challenges.
The one essential board committee
No matter what overall structure a board adopts, however, every board should designate a committee that owns responsibility to assess and improve the board. Such a committee should exercise leadership in:
- assessing board composition and working with the president and board chair to recruit exceptionally qualified new members;
- developing effective tools and processes to ensure adequate board member orientation to board service and to the institutional mission & circumstances;
- soliciting formative feedback from board members regarding each meeting of the board;
- ensuring the self-evaluation and peer review occur in connection with board member re-election;
- conducting periodic, comparative assessment of board performance [The Nonprofit Governance Survey instrument developed by Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) is one useful board benchmarking tool.]
Bottom line: the board must own the board’s effectiveness
Is your board weary, weak and wobbly? That will almost certainly be the state of your institution, now or in the near future unless the board takes ownership of its performance.
But there is much more to good governance. In my next post, I’ll begin looking at how great boards focus on ends rather than means.