Skip to main content
Classical Christian MovementSCL Updates

Governing with Purpose

By May 9, 2024No Comments

What would happen if your board did not meet for two years? Before you start catastrophizing, think for a minute. What would happen? The short answer is, you would figure it out. The longer answer is more interesting and challenging. Start by looking backwards. 

What decisions did your board vote on over the last two years besides the budget? How did those decisions advance the mission of the school, ensure the institution’s long-term viability, strengthen the head of school’s leadership, and reflect wise, strategic priorities? How did you spend your meeting and committee time? How did you allocate resources? Did you focus on the right priorities?

I have asked this question about not meeting for two years, many times in board consultations. You might be surprised how many boards make almost no vote-worthy decisions for extended periods of time. Why? I would argue it is because most boards are simply unsure about what they are supposed to be doing. As a result, they focus on matters that seem important as parents, what is most urgent at the moment, or what is presented to them in monthly reports. Richard Chait says boards often default to what seems most intuitive – keeping order. He calls this the “substitute teacher” dilemma. In the absence of a clear sense of purpose, board’s react rather than thinking creatively about the future. In the end, substitute teachers serve an important function, but it is not very satisfying work, nor is it very consequential.

Chait offers two other dilemmas boards face as they grope towards meaning. The first dilemma is the “monarch dilemma,” which occurs when board’s enact meaning simply by existing and retaining authority. However, they then wander aimlessly to find thoughtful engagement. The monarch retains authority but does not find a fulfilling leadership role in the organization. Chait says this often happens with boards that know they have unique authority, but don’t always know to exercise it in advantageous ways. 

Chait also describes what he calls the “firefighter’s dilemma,” a term used to capture the necessity of the board’s role in responding to crises. The problem is, fires don’t happen that often, at least not the kind that warrant a firefighter. Crisis management may be more satisfying than other aspects of the board’s work because of its tangible results, but it is, nonetheless, episodic. When not putting out fires, firefighters play cards and wash the truck (I have no idea what firefighters do, so I am merely working the metaphor), but mostly they are just waiting for the next fire. Boards facing this dilemma may find their leadership indispensable, but probably not for the reasons they imagined when joining the board.

These are some of the challenges boards face as they seek to find clarity, focus, and a sense of fulfillment. This is not a knock on boards. They are easy targets for criticism, but the truth is, non-profit boards have a lot stacked against them. Consider:

  • No one is paid to be on boards
  • The motivation to serve is almost entirely internal
  • The understanding of what they are going to do once they join the board is very limited
  • Accountability is low, even though the consequences are high. Let’s face it, you can be a bad board member for a long time on most boards.
  • There is little motivation to improve, research, and innovate. After all, your term will be over before you know it.
  • Many board members have never served on a board, get little to no training, and have no idea where to start.

So, we should not be surprised that boards struggle to find a sense of purpose and define their experience in positive ways. It is just hard to stay meaningfully engaged on things that matter. Governance, in its current expression, is too flat, simplistic, and unengaging for the average business leader who fills a board seat at our schools. Their negative perception is often confirmed and compounded when they compare their non-profit board experience with their daily corporate norms. Unfortunately, many board members will simply resign themselves (and their boards) to mediocrity and a scarcity mindset.

I am not trying to be cynical or hyperbolic. I continue to write about governance because I believe if we do not learn to face these issues head on, the implications are sobering. The truth is, what Chait calls “the problem of purpose” should not be an issue for our schools.

Governance matters. In fact, we could argue that unless we figure this out, the classical Christian school movement is in serious trouble. While it would be nice to assume we will just keep getting better at governing, research shows this is simply not the case at independent schools as a whole (I could list a host of evidence, but take head of school tenure as one indicator). The gains, overall, have been marginal.

At SCL, we are committed to encouraging, inspiring, instructing, consulting, and sometimes cajoling boards to do the hard things and get the help they need. If your board did not meet for two years, it should be detrimental! Conduct the exercises I suggest with your board. What would it take to ensure the work of your board is invaluable and even indispensable? If all the activity you are doing now could be done by any board, what value are you adding to the institution? What is the work that only your board could do? Work that ensures your school will be healthy and thriving for your grandchildren and beyond? If you have not had any decision worthy of a formal vote for the last two years, lean in and take stock. Be willing to ask yourselves the hard questions and refuse to settle for what now have become non-profit norms – dysfunction.

The classical Christian school movement has grown exponentially in the last few years. Can it continue without governance that is sound, strategic, and wise? The answer is no. The ultimate recipients and beneficiaries of your leadership – the children we serve – are worth investing in. They are worth exerting the time, expertise, vision, and creativity to think about governance in ways that are wise and fruitful. We don’t have to start from scratch, but we also don’t have to continue passively repeating systemic mistakes and wonder why we keep solving the same problems. There is too much at stake.

Annual Offerings Booklet

As a member, you receive access to all of the most recent summer conference content, including 80+ workshops, plenary speakers, etc., plus access to the full library of past content.

Conference Sessions

Ensure increased visibility for your school by having it listed on the Find a School Map, connecting you with potential students and families seeking a classical Christian learning environment.

Map Feature

Unlock a wealth of exclusive resources, such as research studies and articles, providing valuable insights and knowledge for your school's continuous improvement.

Resources

Enable your school to easily post job openings and attract qualified candidates with the Career Center, simplifying the hiring process.

Career Center

Enjoy exclusive discounts on all SCL events and services, empowering you to access valuable resources and opportunities for your school's growth at a more affordable cost.

Exclusive Discounts

Get access to exclusive cohorts and workshops!

Cohorts and Workshops

SCL conducts school-wide surveys to provide relevant information to the classical Christian community as well as access to in-depth research with partner organizations like the Barna Group.

Research

A connected community of classical Christian thought leaders, including heads of school, board members, marketing and admissions directors, development and fundraising directors, academic deans, grammar and upper school heads, and teachers from all grade levels are here to support and encourage one another.

Community

Member-exclusive Coaching Call sessions. 15-20 online sessions each year from key-thought leaders on topics ranging from legal and operational issues to pedagogical and philosophical discussions. Think of it as a mini-conference each month!

Coaching Calls

Gain new insight, knowledge, and skills around best practices in a short, intensive format with workshops or a year-long mentorship experience with cohorts. Designed for administrators, teachers, parents, leaders, and department heads – anyone seeking to learn and grow in their role.

Conference & Workshops

Our network of seasoned professionals is available to navigate your questions and brainstorm solutions with you. Let us know how you want to direct your time and we will pair you with the senior leader that best suits your school’s unique needs.

Consulting