How Would your Day School Board Perform on a Stress Test?

An exercise stress test reveals how your heart functions during physical activity. The purpose of a stress test is to measure how blood pumps through your heart when it is working its hardest. It can reveal benign irregularities, or it can indicate a severe and fatal condition that requires immediate and emergent treatment.

What does cardiology have to do with day school boards, or boards more generally for that matter? While boards may appear to be functional from the outside, appearances are often deceiving. Unfortunately, an organization too often does not assess the overall health of its board until it is suddenly stress-tested. As in the medical field, such stress tests are not conducted on a routine basis, and in the board context, they are also not “ordered” by the chair when he or she senses that there may be vulnerabilities or areas where the board could better perform.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, in collaboration with BoardSource and Guidestar, 69 percent of nonprofit directors say their organization has faced one or more serious governance-related problems in the past 10 years.

When boards are not adequately prepared, stressful incidents can lead unnecessarily to crises. In the day school arena, a common example of this is an issue involving a student or a concern about a teacher’s behavior, which can open up a fracture in the complicated relationship between the head of school and the board. This breakdown can lead to abrupt decision-making and can tear at the very fabric of the board if they have not taken the time to build its foundation, exercise thoughtful and strategic leadership, and form meaningful and trustworthy relationships among its members.

There are three optimal points of intervention, when boards are either establishing a routine or forming a new routine, for boards and professionals to reflect and assess board health.

Board Building

Generally speaking, few boards invest the time, effort and energy to construct both the governance systems and invest in the human capital necessary to set a board up for success from the very start. Yet “board building” is not a one-time exercise; rather, it should be an intentional process that takes place at any stage throughout the work of the organization. True, it is much easier to begin with a functional base than to conduct a major course correction later, but it is difficult to do when an organization is just getting started and needs to be nimble.

While “board building” is often used to describe the process one undertakes when actually forming a board, it can take place as an organization moves through different phases of its life cycle. Typically, boards move from a founding board, to a strategic or governing board, and ultimately to a generative board. In moving from one phase to the next, the board is “building” on its previous foundation. Only boards that are intentional and deliberate in moving through these stages are able to get to the ultimate generative mode of operation.

Board Restructuring

There are moments in the life cycle of some organizations and schools when there is an understanding that a restructuring of the board is necessary for a myriad of reasons. Often the board has become unwieldy, and the organization needs to shed “dead weight,” so to speak. Other times the organization is reinventing itself, especially in these complicated times, and the board it has is no longer the board that it needs. The third situation occurs when there is a significant change in the senior professional team that establishes governance as a priority. In all cases, there is likely some catalytic event.

Organizational Crisis

Unfortunately, we are seeing this more and more. The crisis is often so significant that it could ultimately take down the entire organization, and the board is forced into a position to lead and make extremely difficult decisions at moments of intense pressure, public scrutiny and when the very viability of the institution or school is at stake. There is no question that these situations are not just messy, but they can tear boards, institutions and long-held relationships to shreds.

So what is the prescription? There are options to institute more regular and rigorous exercise regimens into board culture so we can better predict how boards will perform under stress. Some focus on the overall board, while others cultivate individual board members or staff. In all cases, the goal is to find weaknesses and fortify boards so they are better prepared to perform in various circumstances.

Board Health Assessments

According to the Stanford study cited above, 36 percent of nonprofit boards never evaluate their own performance. While this statistic may actually appear higher than we would expect, the study does not go on to elaborate what is meant by evaluation. There are in fact several types of board assessments, and they vary in depth, breadth and quality of administration. Some assess individual board members, some evaluate the board as a whole, and others provide 360-degree evaluations of the board.

It is important to note that these assessments are merely diagnostic tools. They are not curative. Therefore, accompanying facilitation and analysis by someone with extensive experience working with day school boards is highly recommended.

The day school movement is ahead of the curve on this front. An example is Prizmah’s partnership with BoardSource and the development of the Board Fitness services, which include a customized board self-assessment for Jewish day school boards. Prizmah is currently working with dozens of schools across the country since they have made this a leadership priority.

Investment in Board Development

According to a 2016 study by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management entitled “Voices of Board Chairs: A National Study on the Perspective of Nonprofit Board Chairs,” 51 percent of respondents indicated that they did nothing specifically to prepare to become a board chair and only 56 percent stated they followed some intentional process. In fact, only 19 percent of respondents indicated that “becoming a chair was a natural progression.” Chairs generally identified online resources (42 percent), local workshops (37 percent), and books they had purchased (33 percent) when asked about what sources of information were helpful.

While investment in board development is on the rise, there have been few cross-sector, cross-experiential and cross-generational solutions brought to the sector. The foundation where I work, the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller fund, partnered with the Kellogg School’s Center for Nonprofit Management at Northwestern to create the Board Member Institute (BMI) for Jewish Nonprofits. This holistic program aims to provide knowledge acquisition, skill refinement and practicable application of best, yet realistic, practices.

This year, the program partnered with other agencies, including Prizmah, to bring leaders across sectors to learn together. There were five board members from Jewish day school boards across the country in the national cohort and an additional three within the local Chicago cohort. There is growing interest from day school leaders in strengthening governance practices. The Prizmah partnership with the BMI enabled a group of day school leaders to learn with one another. These individuals came together as a cohort within a cohort and continue to share resources and gain support designed to meet the unique needs of day school boards. 

There are a number of other board member development initiatives that exist in specific verticals in the Jewish space, including Prizmah’s work with day schools, federations’ work with their leadership, Slingshot’s work with next gen and more, yet there are few robust programs specific to the Jewish community that take a sectorwide approach. Just as organizations and funders alike must make investments in board development a priority to support culture change that aligns with their programmatic interests, they must also understand that this is necessary capacity building for the field at large. As many board members move from one board to another throughout their leadership trajectory, we must prepare current volunteer leaders to serve in the next iteration of our boards, while also creating a pipeline for prepared and inspired leaders to elegantly replace them. If the entire field takes this on, because of the nature of the board service, the entire field will exponentially benefit.

Investment in Governance-Related Professional Development for Senior Staff

While there are a number of professional development opportunities for senior staff professionals and others who interact with boards, there are very few opportunities for senior professionals to get development in governance or the nuances of working with a board. These senior professionals come from a variety of backgrounds, and they often have limited experience in successfully managing volunteer leaders or navigating board dynamics.

While these critical skills often are lacking in even the most comprehensive professional development programs, this is yet another area in which the day school movement is leading. Two prime examples are Prizmah’s leadership training programs and the Day School Leadership Training Institute; both emphasize the hard and soft skills related to governance and board engagement in their work with heads of schools.

Investment in Relationship Building

Relationship building, among the board members and the CEO, and among the board members themselves, is greatly undervalued from both a time and money perspective. Yet it is not possible to lead, manage change or handle a crisis if the foundation of trust and mutual accountability does not exist.

Limited time in person and regular turnover does not help foster a solid board culture. Moreover, boards often face tension between devoting time and resources to serve the organization versus to serve board development. The “right” balance depends on the particulars of the organization.

There are no quick or easy answers in the world of board health. Like investing in our physical fitness, at first it may not be pretty, but if we are diligent and deliberate, we will see continued and measured improvement in our performance. While there are a number of ways here to define success, ultimately we want to activate volunteer leaders with the requisite knowledge and complex skills to guide, govern and steward our organizations. For that to happen, we must play the long game. Investments we make now may not pay off until much later. Consequently, patience, understanding and mutuality are key.

Taking all of these observations into account, we return to the original metaphor. Has your day school board been stress-tested lately, and if so, how did it perform? If it failed, consider how you fortify it before there is another cardiac episode. And if you are lucky enough to appear healthy on the outside for now, consider taking a physical before you are asked to run a marathon.

Alicia S. Oberman
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics