Board Member Selection
Is choosing the raised hand the best way?
by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
It has been said that the best way to fire an employee is by not hiring them. The same is true for board members. It is far better to make the effort to select the right person for an open board position than to go through the traumatic process of trying to govern with a renegade board member while searching for a graceful way to effect their resignation.
I have often been struck by the stark contrast I’ve observed between the hiring of staff members and the selection of board members. Most Christian schools wouldn’t think of hiring a teacher without a thorough application, shortlist and interview process; careful check of multiple personal and professional references; and a robust discussion with the prospective teacher about whether he/she is a good match with the school’s needs, mission and vision.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in many of our schools when it comes to the selection of board members. I’ve read notices in many of our school newsletters appealing for new board members. All too frequently, potential board members are selected simply because they raised their hand at an AGM, asked one good question at a public meeting, or simply volunteered. I have been amazed and shocked by the fact that some schools readily entrust the governance of their school to trustees they know very little about.
Over the past 25 years of working with board chairs and principals in Canada, the USA, and Australia, I have found that a common thread through our discussions is the topic of how to deal with a board member who is creating mayhem. I usually discover that the board member is a committed believer who strongly supports the school and volunteers countless hours. The problem, it often turns out, is that how the board member understands his /her role differs significantly from how the principal or other trustees view that role.
Trustees on a school board are entrusted with protecting the mission and purposes of the school, ensuring that the school’s Christian distinctives are not only preserved for future generations, but remain biblically relevant in our constantly changing world. Secondly, trustees are to direct the vision of the school, ensuring that it has a visionary and attainable strategic plan with staff, programs, facilities and resources to serve the community for years to come. This task is far too critical to entrust to just anyone who may be associated with your school.
One of the most important standing committees of the school board is the board development committee, also referred to in some communities as the board nominating committee, or the board governance committee. The mandate of such a committee is to improve the recruitment, selection, and training of new board members and create a succession plan for current board members.
In his article on Board Member Selection, Philip Graybeal makes the following points:
When we approach prospective donors about giving money to the school, we are careful to tell them what the money will be used for. The same care should be taken when we ask people to give of themselves. We must be careful to tell them clearly how they will be “used”. Such interaction prior to a board appointment should be viewed as a common courtesy, one that cannot be over looked simply because the candidate is a ‘”nice person” is willing to serve, and supports the school financially. 1
Here are some questions the board development committee should ask every potential candidate, prior to their consideration for a potential term of service on a school board.
- What is your relationship with Jesus Christ?
- Do you ascribe without reservation to the school’s written statement of faith?
- What do you believe is the purpose and definition of Christian education?
- Are your school aged children enrolled in a Christian school? Why or why not?
- In what ways have you been involved in supporting the school?
- Why do you want to serve on the board, and what contributions do you believe you can make?
- What experiences have you had that could assist you in participating on the board?
- Would you be willing and able to participate in special training opportunities related to the proper functioning of the board?
- To what degree have you been personally involved with your own children’s education?
Depending on the type of Christian school governance model and its board qualifications, it may also be pertinent to ask the candidate about such things as these:
- Specific local church membership and attendance
- Marital status
- Personal references to verify a good testimony in the community
- Names and relationship of any relative or close friend currently employed by the school
Good intentions can be thwarted by poor processes. So what are the ingredients of a good process for selecting board members?
- Before recruiting members, provide a written job description for the board as a whole, and its members, including specific qualifications and expectations for members. (See Sept. 2010 LINK article The School Trustee Commitment Letter: Are you ready to sign?) This step cannot be overemphasized.
- Define the process for identifying prospective board candidates. Will it be by invitation only, public announcement, nominating committee or a combination of these and other methods?
- Gather pertinent information from candidates, preferably through a written application.
- Review the applications, eliminate those who are unqualified, and then select the top candidates for personal interviews.
- Have the board (or appropriately appointed individuals) conduct the interviews according to a preset criteria that will allow the interviewer to complete the same interview appraisal form on each candidate.
- Present the final candidates for board approval.
Before new board members attend their first meeting as voting members, it may be helpful for them to come as observers for a few times to get the feel for how the board operates. A careful selection process, thorough orientation and a good start will go along way towards causing them to value and ultimately enjoy the wonderful experience of serving on a board.3
1 Graybeal, Philip Board Member Selection Christian School Board Governance, ACSI Purposeful Design Publications, 2007 p. 94-95.
2 Biehl & Engstrom, The Effective Board Member, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville 1998 p.22-23