When Someone Asks to be on the Board of Trustees of Your School: Red Flag or Welcome Aboard?

Over the years as a head of school, trustee, and consultant I have been asked about the issue of someone within the school’s constituency (parent, grandparent, parent of an alumnus, or alumnus) who is seeking to be on the school’s board of trustees – someone who actually wants to be a board member! In the vast majority of situations prospective board members have to be encouraged – sometimes rather strongly encouraged – to join the school’s board.

So then how do we react and when someone volunteers to serve. My typical reaction has been to be extremely skeptical. What is the motivation? This reaction is based on years of experience and a healthy concern or skepticism that such a person is:

  1. Wanting to connect with high-wealth individuals in order to conduct business; or
  2. Desires to gain inside information about the inner workings of the school in order to share what they know. Of course, this dismisses any notion of confidentiality; or
  3. Has a strong inclination to meddle into the day-to-day operation of the school; or
  4. This person has a specific agenda or concern and must find his or her way onto the board in order to promote what they want to see happen – regardless of whether or not their desires fit within the strategic direction of the school.

Each of these motives is dangerous and can lead to significant problems for the school if left unchecked. But what if none of these factors was in play? What if an individual wishes to join the board because he or she has a genuine interest in serving, in making a positive difference in order to enhance the student experience? Is this possible? I’m becoming more open to the idea.

Recently a head of school contacted me about just such a situation. This head shared that she had been contacted by one of her board members. The trustee said she had a brief conversation with a colleague and the topic of serving on the board was discussed. The colleague expressed an interest in coming on the board if there were to be an opening. The head of school expressed her appreciation to the board member for reaching out to her. She explained the process and the role of the committee on trustees.

Chapters three, four, and five of my new book, Healthy Boards — Successful Schools, address various issues surrounding the topic of trustee recruitment, selection, orientation, and ongoing education. Each of these topics, separately and collectively, are at the heart of the function or dysfunction of the board of trustees. Below is a brief excerpt from Chapter Five, “Establishing the Vital Role of the Committee on Trustees.”

The independent and faith-based school board of trustees is critical to the effective operation of the school—not because the board has day-to-day oversight but rather because of their fiduciary, mission, vision, strategic direction responsibilities, and their role in hiring and supporting the head of school. Board members come to their roles as trustees from a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and constituencies. Therefore, they require training and education as to what constitutes being a valuable and valued trustee.

Tradition suggests that many independent and faith-based schools had a nominating committee whose principal responsibility was identifying prospective trustees, contacting them (usually by phone) just prior to the board meeting, and presenting the slate of candidates to the full board for consideration (sometimes the next day). In this process, there was often little thought given to actual needs or skills or any understanding of the work or culture of the board nor any explanation of expectations. All too often this looked a lot like the “good ole’ boy network” in which the nominating committee was reaching out primarily to friends, not thinking too seriously about diversity, other issues, or considerations in regard to what and how that could benefit the school. This should not suggest that all nominating committees have such a narrow view of their roles. Certainly, there are boards with nominating committees who view their role broadly, taking into consideration a range of responsibilities that incorporate many of the issues a committee on trustees would consider essential. However, the terminology used by many schools is to establish as a standing committee a committee on trustees, or as it is sometimes referred to, the governance committee.

The committee on trustees truly must have a broad range of responsibilities that goes beyond what the traditional nominating committee was asked to consider.

All heads of schools want the best possible board of trustees. The committee on trustees is the path most likely to yield best practices and best candidates. Keeping an open mind about motives might reveal board candidates we might not have otherwise considered.