Education & Government
Jennifer Rose Hale Image
Jennifer Rose Hale
Former Client Partner, Texas Association of School Boards

Experts share their thoughts on board engagement

June 19, 2024
0 min read
Experts tell us about board engagement

Public sector board service demands much of those who take it on. Board members face traditional challenges like balancing tight budgets with growth demands and newer concerns over social, health and environmental issues. They must be prepared for constant learning and making difficult decisions that will affect their communities.

So what do they need to be successful? One word: engagement.

In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam, said, “What really matters from the point of view of social capital and civic engagement is not merely nominal membership, but active and involved membership.”

We asked experts about the importance of engagement for public sector board service. Take a look at what we heard about the role of engagement and how to better support your board.

Focus on efficiency and preparation

“Whether due to their family, profession or other civic and personal engagements, time is precious for school board members and their commitment to effective governance. When engaging and educating board members, less is more. Offer short, digestible messages that are on point.

“School board members come to the table with diverse experience levels and varying knowledge on a variety of subjects. Do not default to methods that assume all board members ‘need it all.’ Grab their attention on a topic and let them choose how far they need to go by offering additional resources.” — Ben Niehaus, Director of Member Services, Wisconsin Association of School Boards

“The best board is an engaged board — a board that comes to meetings ready to think critically and apply sophisticated thought processes to sophisticated problems. The only way for a board member to think at a higher level is to have already read and understood the material. Tie all memos and background material back to the impact it has on students or citizens. Then involve the board in generative conversations related to the board's goals and vision.

“Expect the best from the board and create opportunities for them to rise to the occasion. If their only items for discussion and voting are rudimentary, there is no need to engage in advance with board materials.” — Diana Baker Freeman, Senior Manager, Modern Governance Advocacy and Initiatives, Diligent

“We need to develop a trusting relationship with the board through clear and timely communication so that they have the information they need to make informed decisions. Our board management software is a great tool to effectively communicate with the board and public.” — Chandu Vemuri, Executive Assistant for Board and Superintendent Leadership, Sun Prairie Area School District, Wisconsin

Ensure you are using the board’s time to its best purpose. Be direct in communications, make learning materials easy to find and ensure every board member has access to the right tools to make their participation efficient.

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Provide training on roles and responsibilities and beyond

“Make sure that the board has a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. While you want an engaged board you want them engaged in the correct work which is at the policy level with a focus on the results to be achieved, which for us are student results. The day-to-day administration should be left to the superintendent and their team.

“Encourage the board to work on their own professional development so that they know what is considered best practice.” — Chandu Vemuri, Executive Assistant for Board and Superintendent Leadership, Sun Prairie Area School District, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

Training starts at onboarding, but it should not end there. Adopt a strategy of everboarding — offering initial and ongoing training throughout the trustee's lifecycle — so that each board member is not only clear on their roles and responsibilities, but has opportunities to develop their skills and expand their understanding of your work and mission.

Focus on transparency

“Transparency is critical for board engagement — having readily available, easy-to-access information is the key to having robust and valuable discussions with your board. Often these interactions can result in time and angst savings, as issues can be ironed out early and decisions can reflect the perspectives of board members but who may also delay projects if their concerns are not addressed.” — Lisa Mealoy, Chief Operating Officer, Community College League of California

“In Fairfield County School District, using our board management software has allowed our stakeholders to SEE the work of the board and gives them access to those things that will directly impact them and their children. Transparency is important; it is vital to the success of our board.” — Gervonder Brown, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent, Fairfield County School District, South Carolina

Transparency in the public sector benefits every stakeholder, from the board members who witness the impact of their service, to staff who understand the organization’s direction to your citizens, students and others directly affected by decision-making.

Embrace flexible solutions

“Engaging members of the board is so important because we straddle both the education and local government sectors. As elected public officials serving on a state-funded community college district board, we take an oath of office promising to uphold and honor the rules and requirements issued from both the state and national government entities. My role as a fully engaged board member has changed significantly following the technological advances brought about by COVID-19. I recently presented at a Diligent conference on how essential its [board management software] platform was for my successful onboarding during that challenging time.

“All of us — my fellow board members, other members of our college community and our wider community members — continue to benefit from the best practices of virtual public meetings and engagement required of us during the pandemic shutdown. We now foster much better opportunities for participation and engagement not only for our board members, superintendent/president, administrators, students, staff and the public at large.” — Dr. Anna Everett, Board Vice President, Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees

”We now foster much better opportunities for participation and engagement not only for our board members, superintendent/president, administrators, students, staff and the public at large.” — Dr. Anna Everett, Board Vice President, Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees

Adjustments required during early days of the pandemic left lasting messages for many public servants. Allowing all participants to engage with the process easily — from home when necessary, from different devices or asynchronously — ensures that the governance process is accessible.

Read our other expert-led articles:

How technology supports board engagement

Quality board-management software can make all the difference in fostering board engagement. Ellen Glasgow, General Manager of Mission-Driven Organizations at Diligent, explains, “Engaging board members is crucial in ensuring that public education and local government organizations thrive and can deliver their mission.

“Diligent Community’s features — including secure document sharing, real-time updates and intuitive voting capabilities — empower board members to actively contribute to the decision-making process. Engaging them through the software helps with fostering a culture of transparency, accountability and innovation in our public education and local government sectors.”

At Diligent, we understand what it takes to build and maintain board engagement. Diligent Community is designed with the features trustees and administrators need to support effective and efficient civic service. Let us know how we can help you. 


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