This interview was first published in June 2016.Interview with Christopher Biehn Vice President, College Relations and Advancement Ithaca College, New York
On the Ithaca College website www.ithaca.edu, the first topic listed under “About IC” is not mission and vision, or ranking, or the history of the college…it is “diversity.” So it is probably not a coincidence that Chris Biehn spoke at some length about the importance of diversity in the context of boards and board governance at Ithaca College.
Based on the “Rings of Engagement” model, volunteer engagement begins at the outset of a student’s arrival on campus. Among the many opportunities offered on campus and around the community, IC encourages students to engage with classmates and alumni through Students Today Alumni Tomorrow (STAT) that fosters student/alumni relationships and lifelong commitment to the college. The Rings model provides a basis for a “volunteer progression” designed to fill a long-term pipeline of volunteers, some of whom make it all the way to the Board of Trustees. It also ensures that incoming trustees already understand what it means to volunteer at Ithaca College. So, in a very intentional way the advancement staff is helping to prepare future board members.
At a college that fully embraces and celebrates diversity, the board too is committed to diversity within its ranks. In a departure from traditional boards that seek out individuals for their ability to give, the IC board values members who can bring unique perspective and expertise to the table. But, Chris acknowledges, there is work to be done. He says they are now “in the midst of rethinking how to improve our overall mix of board members,” and Institutional Advancement has been tasked with making sure the entire volunteer structure reaches a deeper understanding of diversity and inclusion. “We realize that this is going to take time and focus and most of all tenacity, or what I would call a fierce focus, in order to achieve it,” Chris confides.
Rings of Engagement by Ithaca College Division of Institutional Advancement
The Trustee Pipeline
Asked what his specific role and responsibilities entail, Chris explains that he, along with his VP colleagues, is engaged in everything from trustee orientation to what motivates and inspires trustees on and off campus. Much of the job is focused on defining the role and responsibilities of the trustees and then refining those to build a more cohesive and spirited board that supports the mission of the college. In terms of nominating for trusteeship, Chris states that there is shared responsibility between IA and board committees to move beyond individuals known for their proclivity to give or volunteer involvement, to engaging other alumni in volunteer experiences that might lead them to the board of trustees down the road.
We asked Chris to describe the attributes of a well-functioning board. He cites three “critical” areas: “First, a shared vision for board leadership; a clear understanding of the qualifications we seek and the way we build a strong pipeline for future board members; and a clear and precise way to evaluate both the board as an entity and the individual board members on it to improve the quality of not only the individual board member’s experiences but also the actions of the board.”
The board evaluation process is multifaceted. Chris explains that after every meeting, board members are surveyed about the work of the board in that meeting, and which plenaries and committee meetings were useful, challenging or could be improved. “So we’re always seeking feedback from board members,” he states. As term renewal comes up or a board member completes their final term, he or she completes a self-evaluation. The governance committee then looks at the evaluation and discusses that board member’s contributions and involvement, and then discusses ways to help improve both the member experience and ways to improve board member productivity as a means to improve the overall quality of the board and the work of the board.
The Long View
Defining a vision for the long run is one of the governance committee’s primary responsibilities. “Keeping their eye on the strategic direction of the board, meaning the board’s ability to govern in a complex organization faced by numerous external challenges, and making sure that the board decisions preserve, of course, the fiduciary integrity of the institution, while also advancing key strategic objectives and a stronger future for higher education,” is central to that role Chris explains. “The governance committee should always be thinking not about the next meeting, but about the work of the board this year, next year and ten years ahead, as well as how the work of the board supports the president and the leadership team in the present.”
In concluding the conversation, Chris reflects that, “We’ve realized that boards must be a strategic partner. Yes, there are fiduciary obligations, but we need more out of our board members than ever before, so we need to provide value and we need to provide compelling reasons for their engagement and philanthropic support.”
So, we reflect, it makes perfect sense to look to that student body where the seeds of volunteerism and philanthropy can be sewn today to cultivate those committed, diverse, inclusion oriented future board members.
Christopher (“Chris”) Biehn (pronounced bean), has nearly thirty years of experience in philanthropy and engagement in both the education and other nonprofit sectors. In April 2012, he joined Ithaca College as the vice president for institutional advancement, which comprises the offices of development, alumni relations, and advancement services. In May 2015 Chris assumed additional responsibilities of marketing and communications for the college. At Ithaca Chris is focused on planning and executing a comprehensive campaign in support of the college’s visionary plan that offers a truly distinctive integrative learning experience – blending together a multi-disciplinary approach to its core curriculum and an extraordinary array of extra-curricular and off-campus opportunities. The campaign mirrors the plan, focusing on building engagement and philanthropy at all levels. Chris is also responsible for branding, marketing, communication and crisis communication in support of enrollment and advancement priorities.
Previously, Chris served as the vice president for university advancement at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. In that role he helped reinvigorate a comprehensive fundraising campaign including the complete renovation of the campus thru philanthropy while overseeing the departments of annual giving, major and planned gifts, leadership gifts, alumni relations, and corporate and foundation relations.
Prior to joining Drew, Biehn served for eight years as the chief advancement officer for the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Massachusetts where in addition to his work around philanthropy he also taught a senior elective course in philosophy. Before that, he was director of development for the College of William & Mary’s School of Education, director of institutional advancement at the Albany Academy, director of development and alumni affairs at Lynn University, and director of annual giving and special projects at Glens Falls Hospital.
He earned his B.A. degree in philosophy from Hobart College in Geneva, New York.