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Board honing in on qualities of a good trustee

UUA’s governing body prepares to appoint four existing trustees to a 14-member board in 2013.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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The UUA Board of Trustees

The UUA Board of Trustees, gathered in Phoenix, Ariz., in June 2012. (Nancy Pierce)

What makes a good trustee?

It’s a question that members of the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees are mulling as the board prepares to appoint four of its current members to a newly configured, smaller board in 2013.

In June 2013, the size of the board will shrink to 14 members from the current 26, following a bylaw change approved by delegates to the 2011 General Assembly. The new board will include the UUA president as a non-voting member, the moderator, the financial advisor, and 11 trustees elected at large.

The board will name four of its current trustees to serve two-year terms on the new board. The Nominating Committee will present a slate for the other positions, including some trustees to serve one-year terms and some to serve three-year terms. This will create a staggered cycle of elections.

During the board’s July conference call on July 29, members evaluated a list of traits they should look for in the four people they will appoint to the smaller board. A subcommittee of the board had surveyed board members prior to the July call and compiled a list of characteristics and qualifications for the board to contemplate.

The board did not vote on the qualifications, however. It will examine them again in its August conference call on August 23. Much of the discussion centered around whether each appointee should possess the same set of skills or if the board wanted to ensure that the people it appointed possessed the skills as a group. Moderator Gini Courter asked if they should approach the selection of the four trustees who would continue on as a basketball coach would in assembling players on a team. “Not everyone needs to be able to dunk,” she said. “But everyone needs to be athletic.”

Individual trustees weighed in on which traits and skills they believed to be most important.

The Rev. Jeanne Pupke, trustee-at-large and senior minister of First UU Church of Richmond, Va., stressed her belief that each trustee should have a high level of financial acumen. The newly configured board will no longer have a finance committee that provides financial oversight of the association. Instead, all board members will perform that function. “That requires that everyone has the ability to work with a budget the size we are used to seeing,” she said.

Each board member should also possess “a desire to transform Unitarian Universalism,” she said. “It’s critical as we look at relocation, re-visioning, and reconceiving ourselves as an association,” she said.

Pupke also said that each board member should be a “fierce multiculturalist.” It is important to have diversity on the board, she said. But it is not up to people of color to be the only advocates for multicultural goals. “It is primarily the responsibility of those who are in the majority to take up the work of multiculturalism,” she said.

Pupke expressed a concern that the new board would end up with too many ministers on it.

Donna Harrison, trustee from the Southwestern UU Conference, said she thought each trustee should display a “commitment to Policy Governance.”

Pat Manley, of the Massachusetts Bay District, said she thought it was important for some of the appointees to be very well versed in Policy Governance, “but everyone doesn’t have to be a Policy Governance wonk,” she said. Manley did believe, however, that each person should be collaborative and have good communication skills.

The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, trustee-at-large, said that he thought an understanding of Policy Governance was important to ensuring continuity for the next board. “When I came on the board, I had taken trainings in Policy Governance and read books about it. But there’s still a steep learning curve, because this board’s practice of Policy Governance is unique to this board,” he said.

Lew Phinney, of the Mountain Desert District, said that “the time to be a good board member” was an important thing to evaluate —a sentiment that gave Pupke pause. She said that she worried that if the board required too much time, it would deter young people from running and that it could attract only retirees and religious professionals. “I would hope that we could reduce the requirement for time and emphasize the requirements that are about wisdom and effectiveness,” she said. “Just the ability to spend a whole lot of time on something doesn’t make someone a good board member necessarily.”

Courter weighed in with her wishes, as well. She agreed with the need for multicultural competency and financial acumen. And she emphasized that people should be comfortable speaking in larger groups, comfortable with “creative conflict,” and “able to engage with difficult discussions.”

Board members agreed to take up the conversation again in their August phone call. In the meantime, the subcommittee creating the list of ideal characteristics of board members will regroup the attributes on the list and create a way for board members to indicate which characteristics they believe each appointee should have and which should be present among members of the group. The board is scheduled to make its decision on the four appointments in September.

Meanwhile, the Nominating Committee is seeking applicants to fill the other seven seats on the board. (Current trustees may also apply to be nominated by the Nominating Committee.) The deadline to apply to the Nominating Committee is August 15. Applicants must submit a letter of intent along with three written references, according to Nominating Committee Chair Larry Ladd, who participated in the conference call. More information is available on the committee’s website.

The Nominating Committee will put forward a slate of candidates to be presented for election at 2013 General Assembly. Candidates may also run by petition, which must be filed with the secretary of the UUA no later than February 1, 2013.

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