I’ve recently had several conversations with Heads of Schools that centered on the work of Board committees. Actually, the conversations were about how the committees were not working well. Given that Board members of small schools need to deeply understand their roles and responsibilities in order to accomplish all that their schools ask of them, effectively utilizing committee time and structure is critical.
To be effective, Board committees must have clear charges that support the strategic goals of the school. I’ve heard of boards that meet every month and engage in what I call “admiring the problem,” that is, discussing issues without moving forward towards resolution; and I’ve heard of committees that perhaps meet 3-4 times a year and then wonder why nothing gets accomplished. Neither is helpful.
Here are 6 guidelines for effective committees:
Ensure that your Bylaws establish the right committees for your school; those that forward the mission and strategic goals. There are only a few recommended “standing” Board committees- Finance, Committee on Trustees (or Governance), and Head Evaluation & Support Committee, and then others that may be needed such as Audit and Investment committees. Other committees such as Advancement, Marketing, Buildings & Grounds, etc. that deal with operational issues may also be needed on small school Boards to accomplish work that school staff does not have the capacity to complete. Then there are ad hoc committees that may need to be established for short periods of time such as a Strategic Planning Committee or a Bylaws Review Committee. Boards need to carefully consider what committees are needed to accomplish their work for the school at any given time. Having too many committees that are not focused and productive drains resources and energy.
Ensure that you have the right people on each committee. Do you have the diversity of experience, skills, and perspectives needed to do each committee’s work? Some committees benefit by non-Board members participate and this is also a strategy for cultivating new Board members.
Ensure that each committee has a clear charge and articulated, specific, annual goals. It is important that each committee’s charge focuses on the long-term, strategic needs of the school. It is in committee that the real “work” of the Board is accomplished. Committees need to understand and articulate why they are meeting and what the plan to accomplish.
Ensure that the Chair of each committee is committed to facilitating regular meetings and following up with detailed, timely reports. When and how do committees meet? Are you sensitive to all committee members’ time and circumstance? Can you utilize technology to enable more members to participate?
Ensure that there are established and consistent practices for committees to share their work with the Board as a whole. Developing standard forms for committee reports that effectively and concisely convey the needed information as well as timelines for submission will enable the entire Board to understand each committee’s work and be prepared to make decisions in Board meetings.
Ensure that there are methods for regularly evaluating the work and the goal achievement of each committee. If there are no specific, objective outcomes that can be attributed to committee work, then the committee is not effective.
Board committees are critical to the governance of small schools, and yet there is often little attention paid to their structure and success. The nature of governing small schools requires Board members to accomplish a lot! Effectively utilizing committees will help.