The Washington School for Girls is an all-scholarship independent Catholic School serving students in grades 3-8. Students come primarily from DC’s Wards 7 and 8. By offering a comprehensive academic program in a supportive environment, WSG helps students become confident, competent and courageous young women.
Our school began as the dream of a group of Washington-based women, members of three organizations: The National Council of Negro Women, The Religious of Jesus and Mary and The Society of the Holy Child Jesus. The women who founded these organizations serve as our founding spirits, guiding our mission and purpose.
What does winning this award mean for you and your organization?
We are humbled and honored to win this award. We are grateful to highlight the contributions of our Board and their impact on the success and growth of the Washington School for Girls.
This comes as we celebrate our 20th Anniversary of service to the young women of Southeast Washington, DC. Winning this award is a wonderful affirmation of the hard work that the Board has done in recent years to bring WSG to a new level of maturity as an organization. As the school seeks to sustain its recent programmatic expansion through ongoing fundraising, it would be very beneficial to be recognized with this award. This is especially poignant as we transition from our Founding President/Head of School to the next President. Recognition from the Center for Non-Profit Advancement demonstrates publically what we know internally to be true: that our organization is well-governed and will continue to address the needs of our community through transition and future growth.
What have you learned through the application process for the Board Leadership Award?
This invitation to reflect deeply upon the work of the Board has been revitalizing. We do an annual evaluation of our Board, but it is unusual for us to take such a long view of the Board’s previous work. It is easy to attribute the recent success of the school to the “boots on the ground” program staff while overlooking the essential leadership role that the Board plays within the school. The application process has not only brought these “unsung heroes” into the light, but has also encouraged us to think critically about the work that lies ahead for our Board.
In thinking about the excellent work of the Board not only over the past five years, but throughout the school’s history, we have observed the important phases of Board development that have occurred over time. Our “founding” board at the inception of the school was very different from the current “governing” board. Our board leadership has taken stock of how far we have come as a board and recognized that we must now look at our goals not just in the next few years, but for the next 20! What will our organization need as we approach our 30th Anniversary, or our 50th? These questions have brought a renewed commitment to fostering the ongoing health of the Board. It has been particularly helpful to study ourselves in this manner following our recent focus on developing and executing our strategic plan.
We have learned through this application process a lesson that cannot be reiterated too many times: that the size, skills, and aptitudes of the Board must match the mission and needs of the school. Strong governance goes beyond just ensuring that an organization follows the letter of the law and financial accountability. The Board is central to the function of any organization and must be thoughtfully and strategically cultivated.
What advice would you offer for other organizations/board members striving for excellence in board leadership?
The advancement of the mission of the organization is the touchstone for an excellent board. Each board is unique; while all should follow best practices, it is important to adapt these practices to the size and nature of your organization. The board exists to promote the mission – it does not exist to promote the board, the board members, or an ideal construct.
Regardless of the mission on an organization, it is essential to have a diversity of persons, skills, and professions represented on the board. Diversity in all its forms brings perspectives that enrich and inform how you can best serve your clients. Make sure also that each member knows and understands the community you serve. Where possible, engage the community in dialogue and planning because they will have unique insights to your program.
It is also important to be sure that each board member is committed to and understands your mission. People join boards for many reasons; you must know what their motivations are and why they want to serve your organization.
Boards, and particularly board chairs, must recognize the role of the CEO and support that person in the daily running of the organization – without getting into the weeds. A clear boundary between the program staff and the board is necessary to build a strong, efficient, and effective community. The board should ask questions and engage in a way that empowers the CEO to make informed strategic decisions, but with deference to the CEO’s management of the program. Board members should be known to the employees and constituencies of the organization as much as possible and appropriate, as their presence can build confidence and faith in the leadership and sustainability of the organization.
The leadership of the board can be very helpful to the leadership of the program. Build good rapport and create a climate of dialogue. As the saying goes, it can be lonely at the top – providing a confidential sounding board for the CEO can help her address challenges great and small. A CEO or organization that fears its board or is hesitant to share the realities of service delivery will quickly become an ineffective one.