(Original Q & A article at InTrust Magazine) Both new and seasoned board members may need refreshers in their school’s mission and vision statements, says Aimée A. Laramore. And they may need a refresher in what their own role is in the seminary’s overall fundraising strategy. But many seminary board members can’t communicate the seminary’s vision clearly, and many administrators don’t know how best to use their boards. The result is anxiety both in the executive suite and in the boardroom.
Laramore is the director of seminary advancement at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, and she was formerly associate director at Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She also heads up a personal consulting practice, ALlyd, where she teaches and coaches organizational leaders and boards on strategic planning, governance, capacity building, and resource development.
Laramore is a member of the board of visitors at the Howard University School of Divinity. After a recent workshop she facilitated there, In Trust caught up with her to ask a few questions.
Q You started this workshop — as you do other training sessions for boards — by asking people to write down the mission and vision statements of their organization from memory. Why?
A I start with this exercise because it is important for people who have been asked to steward an institution’s resources not only to know that institution’s mission and vision, but also to be able to communicate them to people in a variety of contexts.
The lesson of the exercise is obvious: It doesn’t require much comment from me when you realize that you can’t write the mission or vision of an organization that you serve.
But there’s another, more surprising, outcome that often happens: If there are 15 people from the same institution, you might end up with 15 different statements. Some people write what they think the mission is and what they wish it would be, and some write what it used to be and what they think it is now. The point is that all members of the team need to know that mission and vision by heart and be able to communicate them with passion and clarity.
Q In what ways do theological schools benefit when board members can effectively communicate the mission?
A When board members are skilled communicators, there are more people prepared and positioned to share what’s happening at the institution. We talk about time, talent, and treasure so much that sometimes people forget an important fourth “T”: testimony. The ability to talk to others and to connect the school to venues, people, and resources that they might not otherwise have access to is an essential characteristic of a good board member.
Q What are some techniques you recommend to reinforce the importance of communicating the mission?
A Start each board or subcommittee meeting by having someone give a brief, personal testimony of how they’ve been able to share the mission or vision. When board members have a regular opportunity to express what they have done, that builds accountability. Another practice is for each board member to identify three examples or key points of the mission or vision that resonate and practice how they would relay these stories and ideas to people outside the institution.
Q Can you give an example?
A Sure. At the beginning of a recent meeting of the board of visitors of Howard University School of Divinity, a student named Lawrence Rodgers shared about a trip to Ethiopia he made with other students, professors, and Dean Alton Pollard III. He talked about how it had been personally transformational to learn about the country’s religious and cultural history.
A high point of this student’s visit to Ethiopia was being a part of the delegation to return a sacred 15th-century manuscript to Debre Libanos Monastery, one of Ethiopia’s holiest sites. Howard University had received the manuscript more than 20 years ago from an alumnus who had donated his collection. The student described the university’s painstaking efforts to return this artifact to its rightful home.
This was an effective talk — partly because it gave those of us who didn’t make the trip an example of institutional integrity and an opportunity to reflect afterward about how the Howard University School of Divinity lives the values that it considers most important. As a board member who did not attend the school, I now carry that story with me everywhere I go.
Q Switching gears a bit, what can theological schools do to help board members become more effective?
A Fundamentally, we have to see board service as an exchange — it’s both an investment by the board member in the institution, and an investment by the institution in the board member. It’s critical to provide board members tools that help them to grow in their service. These may be written materials, electronic materials, or video clips.
At the same time, part of the institution’s responsibility is to send the message that it values board members’ time. Life is busy. Institutions have to use board members’ time effectively, both when the board is in session and when it’s not.
Q How should board members think of their own relationship to the seminary’s fundraising program?
A Often theological schools dance around the development role of board members. But board members need to understand that development — attracting, cultivating, and retaining donors — is really an obligation of every stakeholder, including them.
I tell new and potential members of theological school boards that they should be able to put that institution in their top three philanthropic priorities. Additionally, an effective board member introduces the president and other key leaders to potential supporters. Board members should also be attentive to not only how we raise resources for the institution, but also how we prepare students — the next generation of church leaders — to deal with money, finance, and philanthropy.
Q Particularly for those serving on theological school boards, how would you describe the connection between faith and philanthropy?
A The root of the word philanthropy is “love of humankind.” So the connection between what we believe in our own faith tradition and our desire to love and help people is strengthened when we treat board service as an opportunity for ministry.
The financial challenges that face our theological schools and our students are a reminder to acknowledge that we serve a generous God, and that everything we do is in response to the generosity that has been shown to us. I believe generosity and gratitude are really key to how we do our work. If our worldview is no different than what’s around us, then we’ve lost sight of why we do what we do.We are enriched by our ability to give of our time, our skills, and our resources. It should not be a burden. We should be grateful for the opportunity to give.
Q How can board members be an example of generosity and mission engagement to others?
A I often ask board members how this board and this institution will be better as a result of their service. One way board members can demonstrate generosity and mission engagement is by recruiting future supporters, volunteers, or board members. Another way is sharing about the institution in formal and informal ways. I believe that a great board member is also a good teacher who can influence how his or her peers understand board service. An exceptional board member can exemplify service as both opportunity and gift; they lead by their personal investment.