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Board Bootcamp: Viability

Posted by Grace Lee on Jul 26, 2013 4:00:00 PM


How do we make sure the school is strong and healthy for the long run? The goal is for a school to be both scalable and sustainable. This session discusses how a trustee can ensure the viability of the school.

A board must know where it is on the continuum of board development, as well as where it wants to be.

6 Areas of Viability:

  • Financial - Being “non-profit” is not a goal, it is an IRS designation! The school needs to grow and have the resources it needs to be successful.

  • Strategic - Making sure the board and organization knows where it’s going and how to get there

  • People - You have to get and keep the people with the right talents and strengths to achieve your organization’s goals

  • Processes - These span the whole spectrum of the school from processes for the board to operations, to administration, and to program delivery.

  • Systems - Student information systems, operations systems, financial systems, technical systems - are you proactively using these systems responsibly in your school?

  • Compliance - In order to be viable, a school must be in compliance with the regulatory and accrediting agencies overseeing the school

Financial Viability - The following are indicators of financial health:

  • Substantial cash reserves - How this is defined must be determined by the board. We’re generally looking for a minimum of 10-20% of your annual budget in the bank that you’re not using to subsidize other budget items or programs. This money is available for use if/when the school faces unexpected expenses. These cash reserves allow you to absorb these expenses and continue functioning in a viable way.

  • Balance Budget with Revenue - As a trustee, when you analyze the school’s budget you should be looking for a budget that balances with revenue, NOT including donations. Wise boards are looking for this as a goal. This may be a 3-5 year plan, but at least you know as a board that it is a goal for the organization. Donors want to know that you have a wise plan and you’re being responsible. In order to cast a great vision and get people excited about giving, the best position is to have a budget balanced with revenue.

  • Major Donor Engagement - These types of donors have a high capacity to give. They usually have some specific connection with the school, so you want to have a strategic way that the board is engaging with them as well in building the relationship. This isn’t about pleading your need, but rather presenting a commonly desired outcome. Create a shared vision so that money isn’t the center of that relationship, but rather what you can accomplish together. Fundraising doesn’t have to be a negative feeling - you have a chance to help people discover the joy of generosity. Trustees need to know that they should make the organization a top priority in their giving strategy. How can trustees expect donors to give when they themselves are not giving?

Strategic Viability: Do We Know Where We’re Going?

Many schools only have a general idea at best when it comes to their strategic plan. It is important for trustees to take seriously their commitment to helping the school develop a strategic direction. For strategic direction there are three pieces of information you need to have:

  • Where are you?

  • Where do you want to go?

  • How do you want to get there?

As a trustee, you want to help the school have a clear idea of these three pieces of information.

Components of Strategic Viability:

  • Strategic Board - Trustees shouldn’t be added based on convenience - just because they’re a warm body doesn’t mean they should be a board member. Ideally boards are adding trustees with a very specific plan, and most have a profile outlining the type of person for which they are looking. As new members are added, they are selected based on how they build out the collective strength and abilities of the board.

  • Strategic Plan - This is a plan that has very concrete goals and objectives, along with timelines with points of accountability and follow up. It must also include how the plan will be funded. This is not the type of plan that is created then stays up on the shelf. It is one that has been bought into by the board and is being enthusiastically implemented.

  • Meaningful Goals - You want to have goals that have a significant meaning to them so that when they’re accomplished you can celebrate because it has made a difference! Goals should be set across the entire organization from teachers to trustees - everyone needs to be in agreement on how you win.

  • Coaching and Accountability - Sometimes new trustees are timid on engaging and providing feedback. Each trustee should be direct, but also professional and respectful. Each trustee has a different strength to bring to the table, and should respect that in all the other trustees.

People Viability

Most boards will say, “Our people are our greatest asset.” Are they really? Can you give evidence for support? Here is how you can know for sure:

  • Healthy Chief Engagement - The Chief Administrator should confidently believe that the board trusts them and that the board genuinely wants them to grow. They need to know that they have the support of the entire board.

  • Healthy Faculty Engagement - The employees of the organization should really believe that they are appreciated and loved. They need to be bought-in to the mission, and make it a priority in developing personally and professionally. There should be a real passion to be at work with a low absentee rate and high presence at school events. This is an important data point - The #1 predictor of student success is faculty engagement.

  • Competitive Salaries - In order to attract great people, you have to pay a competitive rate relevant to other organizations and schools in your region. Boards need to know these numbers in order to set a competitive salary for the Chief Administrator, as well as providing the resources for the Chief to provide competitive salaries and benefits for employees. Performance-based pay is not effective for teachers. As a trustee, your board should be looking at how to build a faculty culture that is compelling enough to attract the best teachers in the world.

  • Strategic Faculty Development - Faculty are having to absorb changes in how they teach, the technology they use, how credits are given, as well as many other challenges. Some teachers absorb change well and some don’t. It is important for you as a trustee to help your Chief Administrator navigate these changes in faculty responsibilities. Employee development programs are often organized into a Professional Learning Community (PLC).  

  • Strategic Recruiting & Retention - The Board and Chief Administrator should be intentional in recruiting throughout the region, nation, and even the world, instead of repeatedly drawing from your personal network. The school needs to develop materials for recruiting and should be recruiting all year long. As the trustees coach their Chief Administrator, they need to make sure there is a plan for attracting top talent and keeping them involved. Trustees should take seriously the opportunity they have to help the Chief Administrator offer competitive salaries and benefits. Building schools on the backs of teachers is a 20th century mindset, and it is going away. Schools that operate in that way will fail. You don’t want to be an employer of last resort, but rather an employer of choice.

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