Schools have boards to satisfy legal requirements. Even more importantly, though, school boards add value to the organisation and enhance its outcomes. By giving their time generously, and often sacrificially, board members fulfil a complex cocktail of fiduciary and non-fiduciary duties, shape the ethos and identity of the school, oversee the school’s operations and the work of the principal, and deal with many complex and often unforeseen challenges.
In the United States, a common additional expectation is that members of school boards will make generous financial donations to their school. Of course, the United States’ philanthropic environment is famously quite different from everywhere else in the world.
Very few school boards outside the US have explicit expectations that its members will contribute financially to the school’s fundraising. Some schools encourage their board members (like everyone else in the school community) to contribute to fundraising for capital campaigns, such as an appeal to raise funds for a large building project. However, such encouragement is almost never followed through with explicit demands or consequences for not contributing.
One of the dangers of expecting board members to make financial contributions is that financial capacity could become a criterion for board membership. That would be unfortunate as it would make board membership financially elitist and reduce the diversity of perspectives available in board meetings. I would always recommend that board members be recruited for their character, not their wealth.
If a board decided that it wanted to require financial contributions from its board members, this expectation should be stated explicitly before a new board member is recruited, and then annually in the code of conduct that each board member signs. Financial expectations must always be part of the board’s “no surprises” culture.
There is a rarer but more sinister situation to consider. There have been cases where individual school board members have made significant donations and then used those donations (or the promises to make them) to advance their own agenda on the board, or even to advance their own seniority on the board. Although such actions could not be classified as ‘blackmail’ in the legal sense, it is easy to understand how the seductive influence of a substantial donation could sway the votes of other board members.
An associated question is “should board members be reimbursed for board-related expenses?”.
In the United States, the usual answer is “No, never”. In US schools, board members are almost never reimbursed for their expenses on the basis that board members should not cost the school money. The role of board members in the US is seen to be to enhance the school’s financial position, and nothing should dilute this goal.
In most other parts of the world, board members are usually reimbursed for expenses such as travel and accommodation for board meetings, tickets and travel to conferences and events, working meals over meetings with board members or the principal, and entry to school functions such as musical productions or graduation dinners. Less frequently, some boards also reimburse its members for expenses such as credit card fees on their donations and any professional services they provide.
Like any expectations regarding donations, the expectations regarding reimbursements should be explicitly stated and agreed, preferably in writing, to prevent any uncomfortable misunderstandings. For new board members, this should be a component of the induction and orientation program.
Excuse the pun, but most board members will get on board with expectations if they are communicated clearly, explicitly, fairly and transparently.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
The board’s duties are discussed in detail in our workshop OSG-S7 The Board’s Duties. Board succession planning, recruitment, orientation and expectations are discussed in detail in our workshop OSG-S1 Board Operations.
Detailed advice on these matters is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.
You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html.