Small school board members are often called upon to help with operational issues in order to best support the Head and administration of their school. Boards get involved in discussions (and sometimes the actual work) regarding fundraising, enrollment management, finances, building care, etc. While it is sometimes necessary in a small school for trustees to “cross the line” from governance into operations, board members need to understand that line and stay in the governance realm as much as possible.
The governance realm involves thinking and planning strategically and generatively regarding the sustainability and thrivability of the school. This is one of the primary responsibilities of any nonprofit or independent school board. Strategic thinking is focused on developing data-informed strategies to achieve goals for long-term, financial success. Generative thinking is used to analyze problems and develop creative solutions. If the board isn’t engaged in these types of thinking and planning, who is? Nonetheless, some boards struggle to identify how they can effectively engage in strategic, generative thinking.
The first place to start is by setting up your board meetings so that there is time, space, and focus on strategic and generative thinking. Too often boards spend their precious meeting time reading committee reports or "admiring problems" (discussing issues without considering solutions). Board meetings should be designed to be as efficient as possible so that there is enough time for the most important conversations.
Here are four steps to establish effective, efficient meetings:
1. Start and end meetings on time. Do not wait for latecomers.
2. Use a consent agenda to quickly approve those items that do not need any further discussion (prior minutes, time changes, etc.).
3. Expect Board members to have read reports before the meeting and behave as if everyone has done so. Do not read or summarize reports!
4. On the agenda, clarify the items for discussion, the items for approval, and the expected next steps or tasks for each agenda item in order to diminish misunderstanding and the need to ask clarifying questions.
By reducing the amount of time needed for information-sharing and routine business, boards can spend time on strategic and generative conversations. On your board agenda, place these types of discussion at the beginning of each meeting, rather than the end, to ensure that you will not run out of time. Make time for strategic and/or generative thinking and planning at each meeting and consider a range of topics. Boards can use the strategic or generative thinking time to consider broad goals, thrivability, threats, opportunities, etc. for the school. Allow a significant amount of time for these discussions, 30 minutes or more, to allow deep consideration.
Ensuring that there is ample, protected time on each board meeting agenda for the board to consider big-picture, strategic topics and to develop creative, meaningful solutions will enable boards to fulfill their responsibility of overseeing the long-term viability of their organization.