As dedicated stewards of our community, Align consultants not only work with a variety of boards of directors, we also serve on many boards ourselves. Through this experience we have encountered occasions where members of governing boards brings their own agendas with them and have a hard time really focusing on the good of the overall organization. There is one situation where this seems to be a larger issue and can really be among the most difficult boards with which to work. These are boards comprised of mostly parents of the organization’s focus customer; including nonprofit childcare centers, private schools, school boards in charter schools or small school districts (generally it is more difficult to only focus on your own kids in large districts), or nonprofit organizations such as boys and girls clubs that have not diversified their boards.
We all know that as parents the most important role we play is raising and advocating for our children. So, when our children participate in schools or programs, it seems natural for some of us to step up and serve on the governance board for the organization. We do so with the expectation that we will help improve the environment for the kids. What we tend to forget is that sometimes fulfilling our governance role can contradict what is best for our individual child and it can be very very hard for a parent to step back and say “yep, this is what we need to do even though it may not be what is in my own best interest.”
It can also be very difficult for parents to differentiate between the roles they play in the school. In Align’s training and development of other nonprofit and public boards, we often talk about board members wearing two hats: board member and volunteer. We help them look at how these are different roles and have different expectations depending on which hat they wear at the moment. Add yet a third role to the mix: the role of parent, and now the board member must think about when she is advocating for her child, serving in a governance role, or volunteering on an operational committee.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
1. You are a parent serving on a local nonprofit childcare board. You are in the center every day and have a great relationship with your child’s teacher as well as some of the other teachers in the building. One day your child’s teacher approaches you and says she wants to talk to you as a board member because she is very upset about the behavior of another teacher. Her complaints are primarily based on how she interacts with co-workers, but are not immediate safety or legal concerns. She has talked to the executive director, but is not satisfied with the response. What can you do?
2. You serve on the governing board of a public charter school that your children also attend. The board has been having discussion about reorganizing the organizational structure. However, the reorganization will put your child in a classroom that you do not think is a good fit for him, but will likely be beneficial overall. What can you do?
3. You serve on the school board in small, rural school district. You have a disagreement with your child’s teacher about how she chooses to run her classroom. Is it appropriate to bring this issue directly to the school board? Click here to find out.
4. You serve on a nonprofit preschool board where your child attends school. You don’t like the new extracurricular program that the executive director has added to the programming at the school. What can you do as a board member?
5. You serve on the board of a local afterschool program where your child attends. Last week your child was disciplined which, per the operational rules of the program, caused him to lose the ability to participate in a fun new program. You want to see the rules changed. Can you bring them up at the board meeting?
6. In addition to serving on the board, you also serve on the teacher appreciation committee for the school. The committee is looking at ideas for celebrating “Teacher Appreciation Week” and did not choose the direction you would like to head. Can you use your position on the board to bring it back in line with the direction you would like to see it go? Click here to find out.
Let’s take a look at each of these.
1. This is a tricky situation to navigate as you don’t want cause problems in your relationship with your child’s teacher. However, as a governing board member it is not appropriate for you to take the concern directly to the board. As a governing board, you collectively hire the executive director who is then responsible for hiring and overseeing the rest of the staff and operations. Thus, if one teacher has a concern with another teacher, it is really the executive director’s responsibility to deal with the issue. Most of us have been in situations where co-workers just don’t get along and those situations are not the province of the board of directors. When individual board members attend to staff concerns without using the appropriate procedures they undermine the ability of the executive director to do his or her job and cause huge organizational issues that we have seen lead to organizational failure on more than one occasion. If approached by a staff member, the board member needs to let them know that they appreciate their concern, but they really need to use the appropriate grievance process.
Read question 2
2. As a governing board, you are the recognized legal entity for the organization. Thus, you have a legal duty to set policy for the benefit of the whole organization. As a board member, you can express overall concerns, but if the board as a whole (in accordance with the by-laws or other governing documents), decides to move forward, it is your obligation as a board member to support that decision. If you cannot support the decision, then you have a right to step-off or move to a new organization. What is absolutely wrong is for you as a board member to stay on the board and undermine the decisions that were made. When a board does not move forward as a unified team, it can cause a fracture in the organization that we have also seen lead to the end of an organization.
Read question 3
3. Again, the executive director has ultimate responsibility for the day to day operations of the school. While this issue is important to you and your child, it probably does not rise to the level of a governance concern. You can directly raise the issue as a parent with the executive director, but cannot use your position as a board member to force or intimidate the executive director into doing what you want her to do. The executive director has the ability to make teacher hiring, firing and management decisions based on the overall mission and policy of the organization. As long as that is happening, it is not a governance issue. If there is concern about how the executive director communicates with you as a parent or her approach, that can be given as feedback as part of the overall evaluation process, but just because you don’t like the decision and you are on the board, does not mean you have a right to know all the detail of how the situation is handled or to dictate how the school is run day to day.
Read question 4
4. In most effective organizations, programming and operations of the organizations ought to be set by management and staff. As long as it fits within the mission, budget and policies of the organization, the executive director should be able to manage the day to day operations of the school. The board has the ability to evaluate the executive director; however, evaluations should be based on pre-set goals and outcomes that the board has discussed with the executive director ahead of time. Just because you would not do it that way and serve on the board, does not mean you get to have a say in all the day to day operations and procedure. Stick to Mission and Policy.
Read question 5
5. Rules around who can and cannot participate in specific daily programs likely do not rise to the level of a governance decision. The board may review and approve high level discipline policies, but the day to day consequences of discipline are likely part of the operational procedures that are the domain of the management and staff. However, if this is part of a high level policy that is approved by the board, you are welcome to bring it forward for review, but there should be a broader reason for the review. Does it discriminate based on a protected class? Is there a broader mission based reason to change it? Remember, just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it isn’t correct.
Read question 6
6. Finally, let’s talk about the different roles that a board member might play within the organizational structure. As a governing board member, you have six roles: hiring and evaluating the executive director, assuring financial stability, setting high level policy, advocating for the organization, board development and assuring legal compliance. Thus, many boards have board level committees such as finance or policy review. However, many boards also have operational committees that are ultimately the responsibility of staff or volunteers that are not at a board level. Board members may serve on them, but they don’t act as board members at this point. They are just volunteers and thus have the same authority as other committee members at that point. Individual board members do not have the right to dictate committee work or assert their authority in the group, unless the full board has given the committee direction based on one of their key responsibilities.
Ultimately, having a board primarily made up of parents of customers is a very challenging situation for everyone involved. However, it is workable with a bit of planning. If you serve on a board or manage a board made up of parents you need to make sure to have regular and ongoing board training that helps them understand what the role of the governing board is and is not. The board also needs to have ongoing conversations about how they do and do not interact with staff and other parents. You might also consider adding outside board members to the team. Having perspectives from past parents, community members or donors can help bring a much needed balance to the board that is difficult to achieve when it is all parents. Going from all parents to a mix can be a challenge, but it can be done with a little thought and effort. Ultimately, parents want what is best for both their child and the organization. It just requires a little more effort to balance the two.