Developing the New Member Pipeline: Key Considerations for Independent School Boards

Ari Betof
Ari Betof
Jun 21 · 10 min read

By Anne-Marie Balzano and Barb Rosston

Independent school boards are self-perpetuating and as such, their Governance committees are tasked with seating the next cohort of trustees around the board table.

In this article, we describe how boards can engage in effective recruitment practices and develop a pipeline of potential trustees with an emphasis on diversity and mission alignment.

Scenario:
The Committee on Trustees (COT) at Graydon Academy has been charged with identifying a new cohort of trustees aligned to the school’s mission, vision, and values and that will bring a fresh perspective to the board. At the first meeting of the year, the Chair of the COT, Mike Bianco, pulls out the list of current trustees and remarks, “Well, it looks like we have three trustees at the end of their first term and three who are finishing their second and final term.” One of the first-term trustees, Nancy Flaherty, is on the COT and Mike inquires if she’d like to rejoin for another term. Nancy readily agrees. “One down, two more to re-sign!” Mike exclaims. “Now let’s see who we can bring onto the board.”

With that, Mike turns to the other COT members and asks if they know anyone who would be willing to join the board. “And don’t forget”, Mike reminds the group, “Hugh McNeish, a lawyer, and Diane Fisher, an investment banker, are rolling off so those skills need to be replaced.” At this point, Sue Carstens, one of the new members of the committee, turns to Mike and asks, “Could you share more about what criteria and process we are using to determine who might make for a good trustee?” Mike, a little exasperated, responds that he already mentioned the need for an investment banker and a lawyer, and that the third spot could really go to anyone. But much to Mike’s chagrin, Sue had additional questions. “Do all trustees automatically get renewed at the end of their first term, or might we have more slots to fill? And why do we need an investment banker and a lawyer? Don’t we have a CFO at the school and outside counsel?”

Independent school boards are self-perpetuating and as such, their Governance committees are tasked with seating the next cohort of trustees around the board table.

In the example above, the Committee on Trustees clearly did not engage in good governance when developing a slate of candidates for its board. So, what are best practices for recruitment and how do independent schools develop a pipeline of new trustees?

Independent school boards are self-perpetuating and as such, their Governance committees are tasked with seating the next cohort of trustees around the board table. For many, this is a difficult undertaking, as they search for the “perfect” trustee. Rest assured, there are (almost) no perfect trustees. Far more important is the person who brings the right competencies, skills and perspectives to the group. According to BoardSource, “…the task of building a nonprofit board involves more than just filling places at the board table. It requires being strategic about identifying and cultivating potential candidates so that the board will not be caught off guard when the time comes to elect new members — or when a pivotal board member suddenly departs.” Understanding who is currently at the table, the upcoming projects and goals for the near term (1–5 years), and what skills and perspectives are missing from your board are all critical to developing a deep pipeline of potential trustees.

The Quest for Board Diversity

“The individual leaders who compose nonprofit boards are a reflection of an organization’s values and beliefs about who should be empowered and entrusted with its most important decisions. We believe that all social sector organizations can better achieve their missions by drawing on the skills, talents, and perspectives of a broader and more diverse range of leaders, and that the diversity of viewpoints that comes from different life experiences and cultural backgrounds strengthens board deliberations and decision-making.”

When thinking about your board pipeline in relation to diversity, Caroline Blackwell, Vice President of Equity and Justice at the National Association of Independent Schools, offers these questions for consideration:
● Does our board composition reflect the community we serve?
● Does it reflect the kind of community the school wishes to become?
● Do certain constituencies lack a voice at the board table?
● Are we missing perspectives that could expand our thinking in broad new ways?
● How can we move beyond tokenism?

In order to avoid tokenism, boards should recruit a number of trustees from underrepresented groups at one time and assign mentors who are experienced board members and committed to making diversity a priority on the board. It is also important to involve the new trustees quickly in board work to which they can contribute their talents and feel empowered. And finally, it is not enough to simply invite underrepresented groups to the table; every board should consider how to encourage their new trustees to be leaders. A good reminder comes from diversity advocate Verna Myers, who coined the phrase, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

The Pipeline Process

[T]he board recruitment process begins on the first day of the fiscal year and ends on the last day of the fiscal year. Trustees should always be thinking about who might join them at the table, as they connect with people whose outlook aligns with the school’s mission.

Making sure your board recruitment efforts are year-round is crucial, so that when the time comes to nominate your slate of new trustees, you are not left grasping for straws. This means the board recruitment process begins on the first day of the fiscal year and ends on the last day of the fiscal year. Trustees should always be thinking about who might join them at the table, as they connect with people whose outlook aligns with the school’s mission. There are many ways to cultivate trustees, and often the easiest way, inviting potential trustees to serve on board committees, is overlooked and underutilized. Effective boards take the opportunity to observe how potential members engage in committee work, especially in terms of collaboration and communication, to ensure a good fit with the board’s norms and culture.

The following steps will help your Committee on Trustees plan an effective recruitment process:

Step 1: Develop Criteria for Highly Effective Trustees
● Broad strategic thinkers — Trustees should think broadly, both in the near and far term. They also shouldn’t represent a specific constituency or interest.
● Belief and support of the vision, mission, and values — This may seem obvious, but trustees must understand and whole-heartedly support the vision, mission and values of the school.
● Good collaborators — Trustees should be effective team players. They should be willing to bring up opposing points in a collegial way, and then support the board’s decision once it is reached.

Step 2: Identify Skills, Competencies and Experience
● Specific professional expertise — The board may want to have someone who has finance skills, is an architect, or is an educator at another noncompeting school, for example.
● Diversity — It is important that the makeup of your board not only reflects the makeup of your school, but also stretches the viewpoints to include different voices, thoughts, and perspectives.
● Capacity to attract new resources to the school — Having generous donors on your board can be helpful but may also be fraught with difficulty (will there be pressure to defer to the opinion of a trustee who may fund the project you are voting on, for instance?). But having people on your board who have the skills and contacts to attract both donors and new students is a definite plus.
● Potential to fill a leadership position, including chair, on the board — It is always important to develop leadership capacity on the board. You cannot have a board consisting entirely of followers. While board candidates may be new to the idea of trustee leadership, it is important to look for people who have the potential to become officers and committee leaders.

Step 3: Determine Who’s at the Table Now
● Skills of current board members — Assess who’s around the table and whose term is expiring
● Needs of the board — What goals and projects are you currently working on as a board, and what are the near term (1–5 years) projects envisioned? This will help you think through what might be important in a future trustee.

Step 4: Identify Potential Trustees
Trustees tend to be — Parents*, Alums, Alum Parents, Grandparents, Community Members, Educators

*A note of caution: Parent trustees have an inherent conflict of interest when serving on the board of their child’s school. It is imperative that these trustees understand how to serve on the board with their “trustee hat” on, rather than their “parent hat.”

How to Identify:
● Talk to Head of School, Advancement Director
● Access professional networks
● Tap the community: mission-aligned nonprofits, universities, professional networks
● Consider non-board members currently serving on board committees and task forces
● Look nationally — with the advent of virtual meetings, your potential pool has become much larger.

Step 5: Cultivate and Vet Potential Trustees
● Make sure they understand the role of the trustee, including:
-Expectations of being on the board
-Financial commitment
-Time commitment
-Board culture and board norms
● Interview potential candidates — Board members and the head of school should both be involved in the interview process
● Test drive potential trustees — Invite potential members to sit on a board committee or task force

Step 6: Nominate Trustees
●Create your slate: After interviewing all potential trustees, and/or having them serve on a board committee, decide who you would like to nominate.
●Single slate: Election to the board really should not be a contest; it should not be pitting candidates against one another as much as identifying the right person to fill the seat. When a slate of candidates and officers are presented to the board for approval, it is just that — approval rather than a choice.
●Circulate slate: Circulate the names of the potential trustees to the entire board at the meeting before you intend to vote on the slate, so that all board members have an opportunity to raise any serious concerns.
●Election: Elect your nominated slate, usually at the last or second to last board meeting of the year.

Final Thoughts…

Key Questions for the Board and Head of School

Mission & Data, LLC specializes in supporting independent schools in developing or strengthening their mission-driven, data-informed decision making capacity. We coach and consult with school leaders and boards of trustees to make sense of the input, process, outcome, and satisfaction data that is available through existing channels and generate rich and generative new data sources such as stakeholder interviews and surveys. If you would like to know more about how Mission & Data, LLC can help your school, please contact us at contact@missionanddata.com

Dr. Anne-Marie Balzano is Mission and Data’s Senior Governance Strategist. In her role, she designs learning opportunities for heads of school and boards and leads Mission and Data’s Board Chair Support Program. A former teacher, head of school, associate professor, and most recently, Director of Leadership and Governance at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), she possesses a unique and multi-leveled perspective of the educational landscape and the complex demands of supporting leadership and governance development across multiple contexts. Dr. Balzano is a trusted advisor to schools across the country, facilitating board retreats and educating boards of trustees on effective governance practices and trends, supporting resiliency in heads of school, and building a positive board culture. Independent school trustees and heads of school know Dr. Balzano as the chief editor of The Board Chair Handbook and the host of NAIS’s governance podcast, The Trustee Table.

Barbara Aaron Rosston is a strategic consultant for independent schools and nonprofit organizations. She has spent more than 20 years as a trustee of independent schools, including serving as board chair at Keys School and Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. She was instrumental in leading both schools through strategic planning processes and campus expansions. She serves on a variety of nonprofit boards including Challenge Success and the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. She previously worked as an attorney and a linguist for the U.S. government. She is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of San Francisco School of Law.

Mission and Data

Insights for leaders and boards of organizations that make the world a better place

Mission and Data

Official blog of Mission & Data, Inc. Co-founders Ari Betof and Kelsey Vrooman. Insights for mission-driven, data-informed leadership and governance of organizations that make the world a better place

Ari Betof

Written by

Ari Betof

Co-Founder and Partner at Mission & Data; Chief Advancement Officer at Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship

Mission and Data

Official blog of Mission & Data, Inc. Co-founders Ari Betof and Kelsey Vrooman. Insights for mission-driven, data-informed leadership and governance of organizations that make the world a better place