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Fundraising Learning Series: Q&A with Gina Fafard, BoardOnTrack

Sep 12, 2022 | Fundraising Learning Series

What are some effective ways you’ve seen board members support charter schools?

One of the most effective ways board members can support their charter schools is to clearly understand their roles and responsibilities and maintain a relationship with their CEO grounded in mutual trust and respect. Boards that do this well are actively engaged in the work of the board and are ambassadors for the school out in the community. 

What are the three most important roles for charter school board members to play? What does that look like in practice?

The three most important roles for charter school boards are to:

  • Provide effective oversight of the organization, ensuring compliance with all laws and regulations
  • Ensure the organization meets its charter promises
  • Set strategic goals and work to ensure that resources are available to accomplish the goals 

While the charter school board’s work is focused on these three objectives, the CEO’s role, on the other hand, is to put systems in place to execute those three objectives. The board focuses on results – the CEO on the means to achieve those results.

The best way for boards to put these roles into practice is consistent engagement and communication in-between board meetings through active committee work. Each committee should have a job description and be clear on their goals and responsibilities to the board. 

Here’s a great resource to help get you started from the BoardOnTrack Library of Resources If you’d like more information on how to establish an effective committee structure for your board, you can find some great resources in BoardOnTrack in the Resources: What Committee Should Your Board Have?

How can boards ensure that their decisions are authentically informed by family and community? What policies or feedback loops with parents have been more effective?

Board-to-stakeholder communication can be tricky and if not managed properly can violate sound governance versus management boundaries. Even though charter school board meetings are open to the public, typically only the folks with complaints tend to show up. The best way to provide authentic stakeholder feedback to the board is for the CEO and school leadership to implement and actively encourage feedback opportunities throughout the year for all stakeholder groups. Here are some examples that I’ve seen in practice that are effective:

  • Engagement surveys for families – as opposed to opinion surveys (there is a difference). An engagement survey measures the connection people have to the organization and identifies the factors that influence it. This information helps with student retention goals, as well as staff and family satisfaction.
  • Hold an annual “Town Hall Celebration” meeting in which the board and leadership can provide a “state of the school” report and share annual goals, as well as include the school community in vision-casting for the future.
  • Hold monthly family engagement events and ensure at least one or two board members attend. These kinds of functions are positive opportunities for board interaction with families and students.

In general, it is good practice for the board to not interact directly with parents or staff in a formal capacity. Actively engaging the key stakeholders is a management function and belongs to the CEO or their designee.

What are your three pieces of advice for founding boards and operating boards?

3 Pieces of Advice for Founding Boards

  1. Grow – most charter school founding boards are too small. They are typically a small group with close personal ties. The best founding boards grow throughout the chartering process. And, by the time the doors open, these boards are big enough to have the requisite number of active committees doing substantive work in between board meetings.
  2. Get the Balance Right with Your Founding CEO – typically the lead founder intends to be the CEO of the school and recruits various friends, colleagues, and sometimes relatives to serve on the founding charter school board. It is best for the founding board to have a level of objectivity from the get-go. And, as the organization evolves, to not just blindly follow the lead founder. The charter is given to the board, not the lead founder after all.
  3. Secure Additional Funds – charter schools, like other start-ups, are fragile enterprises. All kinds of unforeseen things can happen. Do your best to build contingency plans and funds.

3 Pieces of Advice for Operating Boards

  1. Understand the Governance – Management Line: As the organization grows, the governance-management line shifts. What may have been a governance function in year 1 could evolve to become a management function in subsequent years. Annually discussing where the line is, and what types of decisions belong to the board vs. the staff are healthy practices to maintain.
  2. Invest in Professional Staff: As you move from founding to sustaining, your path will be much easier with experienced professionals at the helm. To the extent that your budget will allow, it is always advised to build out a strong C-Suite in the early years (even if you are afraid the organization might appear top-heavy in the short term). The more competent the C-Suite, the easier it is to govern the institution.
  3. Support & Evaluate Your CEO: The CEO is the only direct report of the board. The care, feeding, support, and evaluation of your CEO are vital. Make sure your CEO has the support they need from the full board and set up processes to give and receive feedback from your CEO.

Where do you find charter school boards want or need the most skill-building? What supports and resources do you recommend to build those skills?

Development is a big one. Most boards agree that they need to fundraise but don’t know where to begin. Most boards don’t even have an active Development Committee, so establishing that committee would be the first step. This committee’s work should be aligned with the organization’s strategic goals and aim for a small(ish) win at first, to build confidence and momentum. “Success breeds success” is a reality, and smaller campaigns will help identify which efforts work, so they can be replicated for larger campaigns. If the board does not have any members with fundraising experience, it’s a good idea to get some basic training from a fundraising expert. 

The next area most boards need skill building is CEO goal setting and evaluation. Many charter school board members are passionate volunteers but have no executive management experience, so they are unsure of when, what, and how to best evaluate the performance of their CEO. An objective and standards-based assessment tool is key to an authentic CEO evaluation.  If you are a BoardOnTrack member, you have access to our evaluation tool based on the best standards for school leadership and vetted by hundreds of boards nationwide. Just reach out to one of our governance coaches, and we can get you started. If you want more information, check out the Charter School CEO Support and Evaluation at BoardOnTrack.

As you begin to work with charter schools in Washington, where charters are new, what would you like charter leaders and board members to know?

The charter school movement is founded on the principle that by transforming governance in public schools, we can improve educational outcomes for students. Our charter school “ancestors” were trailblazers who had to overcome many obstacles, and the fight for independence and innovation continues.  As the 42nd state to approve the establishment of charter schools, WA Charters have had some big hurdles to overcome. Don’t get discouraged by outside resistance – it only means you are doing all the right things.

And don’t try to go it alone! The charter school community is friendly and super supportive, so reach out to other charter schools as thought partners and tap into the resources of your state charter association.

The Governance Coaches at BoardOnTrack are always ready to speak to you, whether you’re a member or not, so don’t hesitate to contact us! If you’d like to speak to a charter school board governance coach or want to access our free resources, check out our website at