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September 26, 2019; Journalist’s Resource

At NPQ, we don’t believe in skills matrixes for board recruitment—most of the time, they just don’t work. Accordingly, we were intrigued by this recent study of 89 Massachusetts charter schools over a 12-year period, which made some intriguing findings about how board makeup correlates to results. Our favorite finding, as relayed by Denise Marie-Ordway for Journalist’s Resource, is this:

Researchers…learned something about charter school boards that challenges assumptions about which kinds of board members will best help a charter school stay on track financially. While many Massachusetts charter schools have named financial experts such as accountants and investors to their governing boards, this study shows that the financial performance of charter schools with and without a financial expert on the board is about the same.

Right! Let’s can those assumptions about boards that have proven time and again to be a little silly. We were also interested in Marie-Ordway’s point about boards that have founders involved: Those schools tend to “borrow more heavily,” “manage…cash less efficiently, and see smaller increases in enrollment compared with charter schools that don’t have a founder on the board. But these schools do better in one critical area: Their students earn higher test scores.”

Unfortunately, the study’s authors looked at correlations to only three types of board members: school founders, financial experts, and donors. “Donors” are not necessarily individual donors, but representatives from supporting entities like a corporation, or even another nonprofit.

Gulosino and Ciamarra find that having someone on the board who represents a donor increases the school’s financial performance in multiple ways. For example, these charter schools have higher funding surpluses, manage their cash more efficiently, rely less on debt and raise more money. The researchers attribute this to “the donors’ strong monitoring incentives because of their financial stakes in the school.”

In any case, this study is far too discrete to take any generalized findings away except that boards are not made up of skill banks but of people with a variety of motivations and deployable assets. If you hear a simplistic approach to board development—as in a skills matrix—back up, take a deep breath, and think again, because those easy-peasy normative tools that follow simple logic often do not work well with actual people.—Ruth McCambridge