AGB President & CEO Update: Overseeing Strategic Priorities (Foundations)

By Henry Stoever May 4, 2022 June 8th, 2022 Blog Post

You are viewing the Institutionally Related Foundation version of this CEO Update. System and Institution versions are also available.

During last month’s National Conference on Trusteeship, I heard a recurring theme: The most effective, strategic governing boards focus on what matters most, for the future. To help you focus on the most consequential issues that will influence higher education over the next several years, AGB recently published Top Strategic Issues 2022–2023. Harnessing diverse experiences and insights from the leading minds in higher education, this report addresses the most pressing challenges affecting colleges, universities, and foundations.

Top Strategic Issues Facing Higher Education

The publication details five overarching topics currently confronting higher education:

  1. Ensuring institutional vitality
  2. Improving outcomes for students
  3. Strengthening civic education and democracy
  4. Grooming new higher education leaders
  5. Managing serious risks

Not every foundation will encounter these challenges in the same way, and not every board and leadership team will work to overcome them using the same strategies. As you know, boards can be most effective by asking the right questions and working collaboratively with their chief executives and leadership teams to assess how policies and practices will impact the future of their foundations.

For a moment, I will focus on topic #2, “improving outcomes for students.” As you have heard me say, board oversight of student success is of top importance to AGB. We urge boards to think about issues that many in higher education have long ignored, such as student needs related to mental health, housing, food security, and more.

Historically, many foundation leaders have often avoided engaging in student success strategies. The ones that made efforts kept their attention on overseeing endowments and fundraising to cover tuition, and sometimes room and board, for select students. As important as this financial support may be, it does not begin to address the root of the problem. Boards need to be aware that a growing portion of their current and prospective students need more, and different kinds of, support. Chief executives and their leadership teams should educate board members about these needs and discuss how the foundation can be a key partner in supporting new and ongoing remedies that will be necessary in the future. For inspiration, read the story of a 2022 Nason Award recipient, the Community College of Rhode Island Foundation, in Trusteeship magazine.

We have asked AGB’s advisory councils—made up of your peers—to suggest specific questions that boards should discuss with chief executives and their leadership teams related to student success outcomes. The suggested questions include:

  • How does our institution define student success?
  • How does our institution measure student success and what metrics should we share with prospective donors to articulate impact?
  • How will the foundation work with the institution to ensure alignment between their strategies, and what is the foundation board’s role in maintaining that alignment?

The other topics from Top Strategic Issues deserve equal reflection and consideration. The business models and value proposition of many institutions are challenged, and ultimately it will take a level of commitment and bravery to chart a path to sustainability. Obviously, foundations and philanthropic support will be instrumental in setting that path. To offer some ideas, I encourage you to listen to the latest AGB Trusteeship Podcast episode, “Board Leadership in Uncertain Times.”

Questions for Board and Committee Chairs 

  • How can I help set the agenda to ensure ample time for discussion about our strategic priorities and the top strategic issues facing higher education?
  • How can I help my fellow board members think strategically as described in AGB’s Principles of Trusteeship?

Questions for Board Members 

  • How can I help define my foundation’s strategic priorities in concert with the institutional governing board and chief executive?
  • How should my board measure progress toward these outcomes?

Questions for Chief Executives and Leadership Teams 

  • What experts can I leverage to help my board meaningfully discuss and shape our strategic priorities?
  • How can I help structure and complement our board meeting agendas to maximize strategic discussions and well-informed decisions?

I also want to point out the importance of boards addressing divestment. Although divestment has long been a topic for many institutions, it has new urgency today given Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, China’s continued focus on obtaining intellectual property from foreign entities, and ESG themes. Tomorrow, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, AGB will host a special webinar to discuss the questions that foundation boards should ask about divestment strategies on endowments. I hope you can participate to learn how institutions, systems, and foundations are more closely aligning their endowments’ investment strategies with their missions.

In closing, I’m excited to mention that over the next few months, AGB will be rolling out a suite of new member benefits to support your work and the work of your board. Please review to learn more.

I look forward to your feedback regarding how we can support you and your board in facing challenges with even more confidence and acuity.