Having been part of the team that recently released the national study that focused on understanding what nonprofit board chairs do to prepare for their job and what are their relationships, I perk-up when I see stories from board chairs about how they view this job. Such is the case with the following college newsletter that included an interview with the chair of the board of trustees. Agree or not, both the content and framing does provide insight.
From Grinnell College's Scarlet and the Black
Patricia Finkelman ’80 is currently the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Grinnell College. She was an economics major who came to Grinnell from Pittsburg and has served on numerous nonprofit boards throughout her career. When she returned to campus in early February for the board’s quarterly meeting, she sat down with The S&B’s Philip Kiely and shared her thoughts about how the College has changed since her time as a student.
The S&B: How did you become the Chair of the Board of Trustees?
PF: That’s a really long story. I’ve been an active volunteer with the college since I graduated. I started doing admissions interviews and going to college fairs right away, I did that for years and years. I joined the alumni council in 1990 and by 1997, I was president of the alumni council. The president of the alumni council is an ex-officio member of the board. So for a year I was an ex-officio trustee, and it happened to be the year that we had a change in presidents, and there was a search going on, and I was on the search committee, so I got to know the trustees really well, better than a lot of alumni council presidents are able to. At the end of the year they elected me to the board.
The S&B: In your opinion, what is the role of the Board of Trustees? What is your most important mission for the college?
PF: Our role is to make sure that the college is living up to its mission. At the end of the day we are responsible. Some people would say that our role is very simple: we hire the President and we manage the endowment. That’s very simplistic, we do a lot more than that, but really the President runs the college, we make sure that we have the best person in that spot, and then we have fiduciary responsibility for the college’s resources. That’s a pretty big responsibility, we take it very seriously. Our board is … probably 80 percent alums, maybe 90 percent, so we start out in board service with a passion for the institution.
The S&B: How can the board help shape Grinnell’s story?
PF: I think that the board, along with the administration and the faculty, we’re so intimately knowledgeable about Grinnell’s strengths that we can help craft the message. I think that we need the outside experts to help us finalize it, but we know the institution, we know its strengths, and we’re passionate about this place.
The S&B: What are some of the day-to-day things that you do?
PF: Leadership … is twofold. One is keeping things moving, and that requires a lot of communication, whether it is communication between the administration and the board members, communication within the board leadership, so there’s a lot of communication. I spend a lot of time on the phone and a lot of time emailing. There’s a responsibility to make sure that the relationship between the board and the administration is strong and collaborative. The President and I, at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to make sure that it’s working well.
The S&B: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the college right now?
PF: I think that they are the same challenges that are facing a lot of institutions of higher education, college is increasingly expensive, and that’s an issue that we’ve been really fortunate at Grinnell that we’ve had the resources to be very generous with financial aid but costs are just going to continue to go up, so that’s a challenge.