What are some strategies for CBOs to engage with governing and advisory boards during the pandemic to ensure focus on institutional mission and a strong future?
What information should business officers be sharing with the board?
What are the productive ways to share that information?
These were some of the questions that were discussed by Joanne Yestramski and Barbara Larson, NACUBO consultants, along with Susan Whealler Johnston, NACUBO president and CEO, in a recent webcast “Communicating the Financial Outlook with Your Board.” The webcast is available on-demand as part of NACUBO’s free-to-members series Unprecedented Times: Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis.
Roles in the Right Places
Larson emphasized that, at this time, all institutional leaders must be laser focused on their distinct roles, on clear communication, and on mission. From the start, communication to the board chair and board should come from one individual, generally the president or chancellor, or a designee. Regarding roles, clarity is key:
- The board’s focus should be on policy and institutional advocacy.
- The president or chancellor and the leadership team should be focused on institutional operations and the response to the crisis.
- Use existing committee structures to your advantage to move policy issues forward quickly.
This is also the time to reemphasize media relations procedures. Most institutions have someone in the public information officer or PIO role, and this individual should be responding to media questions, not individual board members.
By providing consistent and transparent updates to the board, Larson said, business officers can enlist the board’s understanding, support, encouragement, and patience. As committed volunteer leadership, board members want to be of service and are needed to review and approve emergency policy changes, advocate for stimulus funds from federal or state sources, and assist with fundraising.
To help you communicate purposefully and clearly with your board, Larson advised:
- Structuring your meeting agendas to keep the board at that strategic level.
- Having clear recommendations with rationales ready for their action.
To best serve the institution at this critical time, board members should avoid second-guessing operational decisions.
Given demands on their time, business officers are working to protect staff and themselves from superfluous information requests. When a board member makes a request for “nice to know” information, Larson suggested first responding that “yes, staff could prepare a report,” but to also ask, “for what purpose, and how much staff time should be devoted to responding to this request?” Nine out of ten times the board member will withdraw the request. If this is happening at your institution, especially now, appeal to your president to ask the same questions of board members, reemphasizing the board’s policy role.
A focus on the institution’s mission must be front and center in all communication with the board. Business officers can achieve this by tying the institution’s mission to recommendations to the board on both short and long-term decisions. There will likely be a lot of new and revised strategic planning ahead for institutions, and business officers are uniquely experienced in analyzing trends, projecting costs, and assessing risks in scenario planning. This expertise positions them as key leaders in guiding mission-focused conversations among colleagues and the board.
Priority Items Only
Yestramski discussed prioritizing the topics business officers and other university leadership should be communicating with the board:
- Online transition—How effective has the transition been? What have been the additional costs?
- Student engagement—What is your approach? How will you be using emergency funds to support students?
- Partners and donors—How are you engaging with these groups?
- Enrollment—How are you imagining delivering courses in the summer, fall, or beyond? How are you prepared to be nimble in course delivery?
- Budget—How is your budget being affected, especially as a result of the student housing refund? What cost-cutting initiatives are planned or in place? What is the status of your cash flow, liquidity, and lines of credit?
- Reserves—What is the state of your reserves? What has been the impact on your endowment? What board approvals might be on the horizon for reserves or endowments?
- Technology and capital projects—What has worked and what hasn’t regarding technology, and what lessons have you learned? What kind of capital projects do you need to rethink, slow down, or cancel?
- Timelines and indicators of success—What data analytics can you share on success factors? When do you think you might be able to give a budget and enrollment update for next year?
- Workforce management—Avoid great detail by keeping conversations about furloughs and layoffs at the strategy level. What has been the impact of the government programs and protections, and how will they mitigate the need for furloughs and layoffs?
Yestramski emphasized the importance of being well-prepared when presenting to the board, in part by trying to anticipate what the board wants to hear and know. Additional approaches business officers should take when sharing information with the board are to:
- Tell the board as you start any meeting where you are right now, what you have done, and what you are working on.
- Ensure you are building confidence by following up any reply of “I don’t know” to a board member question with the ways you are still learning and thinking about the topic.
- Manage your data and have it ready. Data should include student enrollment, cash on hand, debt issues and concerns, and common finance or investment committee concerns.
- Think of your presentation as a high-level report, not a series of spreadsheets.
- Be strategic and confident in your presentations. How are you and your colleagues helping the board understand the financial challenges without having the board think they should be making the final decisions?
Into the Future
Finally, looking at the future, Yestramski sees that revised strategic plans will bring many changes, including the possibility of new partnerships; changes to program delivery, accreditation, and capital plans; and even revisiting institutional mission. Yestramski encouraged business officers to have great confidence in themselves. Through collaborations and goodwill across the higher education community, institutions have facilitated the fast-paced changes that have been necessary to sustain the promise of higher education for its students.
KIRSTEN HILGEFORD is associate editor, content for Business Officer.