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Perspective on the Board of Visitors

Phil Brach, Assistant Dean,

School of Business and Economics, The Catholic University of America, July 2015

While it is understood that American universities and colleges are governed by Boards of Trustees, the purpose and role of the Board of Visitors may not be as well understood. The Woolbright Group spoke with Phil Brach at The Catholic University of America to learn more about the specific purpose these organizations serve, and how their purpose aligns with a Board of Trustees.

At the outset, it is helpful to clearly outline what advisory boards such as a Board of Visitors are not. Namely they are non-juridical boards, a fancy way of saying that they do not have legal fiscal responsibility or authority to set official policy. I find it helpful to make this point specifically to members as you are recruiting them. An example that helps to illustrate the point is Boards of Visitors should not “vote on” or review budgets.

What they should be involved in is strategic planning and advice on refinement and attainment of the individual school’s goals. A university like CUA has 12 schools and the Trustees cannot possibly be engaged with each school at this level.

The core expectation of a Board of Visitors is to be champions for the schools strategic direction. This requires them to know well the school’s mission, purpose, goals, programs and needs. Second, they must make a commitment to enhance the school’s resources. This should include a clearly defined philanthropic threshold for membership. Other duties include efforts to assist in finding internships for students, mentoring students, guest lecturing and recruitment of others who can assist in various capacities. Finally, it may sound trite, but members should be expected to attend board meetings. Some advisory boards serve the singular purpose of lending their names to the school masthead. A Board of Visitors should be a more robust commitment.

Boards of Visitors face some interesting challenges. Diversity of membership has to be one of the biggest. The board should have a unifying commitment to the mission of the school, yet be made up of a good combination men, women, mature, young and ethnically diverse. At CUA, I strive for a mix of alumni vs. non-alumni, including parents, parents of alumni and community leaders. You want the board to be of a certain executive/leadership stature in their professional life. Sadly, certain demographics are still significantly underrepresented at those levels of our society. Those who have reached such levels are in high demand for volunteer board participation.

There is no easy answer for the diversity problem other than a constant and sincere effort to recruit diverse members. Some schools have had success with demographic specific volunteer boards (i.e. Woman’s Leadership Council) to bring attention to the matter.

Coordination and partnership with the Board of Trustees is a challenge. A good way to assure coordination between Boards is to have cross-pollination in membership. This could include members simultaneously severing on both Boards, termed out Trustees continuing their service on the Board of Visitors, and or Visitors being “promoted” to the Trustee level over time.

Another challenge is time. Volunteer boards of this nature require significant time and effort to develop and manage. And finally, momentum – the need to keep the initial excitement of a new board fresh and alive over time is key. I am a strong believer in term limits for membership. It keeps those in charge of managing the Board focused on a constant pipeline of new members. It also prevents the board from becoming a closed inward looking click.

For campuses wishing to establish a Board of Visitors, it is crucial to have the full commitment and engagement of the Dean or divisional academic head that will manage the Board process. My advice is, don’t overcomplicate the process. Our description and bylaws for the group fit on one page double sided. Support staff with some bandwidth can handle the administrative needs of the Board.

The first three members you recruit are critical. Think long and hard about the profile and stature of the membership. Identify highly visible outstanding candidates for the first three members. Doing so will set the tone and attract peer group individuals to the board. If you compromise on membership in the beginning you will be swimming upstream.

As to the perception that there is a growing trend for establishing Boards of Visitors, I have not taken a statistical survey, but anecdotally they seem to be growing in popularity. The past decade has seen an over “mechanizing” of the cultivation and solicitation process. CRM systems and other data driven approaches have provided great improvements to advancement efforts. However, an overemphasis on these new tools has made many gift officers forget the good old value of genuine volunteer engagement. Increasing the number of volunteer level boards helps to facilitate the true commitment to mission that leads to increased philanthropic commitment.

At CUA we are two and a half years into this and I still consider us to very much be in the “early” stages. A key moment for me was the very first meeting. Instead of dictating to them how we would conduct meetings we asked for their input. A member spoke up and said please do not make me fly into town to hear you report to me – send me the information, I know how to read! He went on to suggest given the brain power in the room that they use each meeting to drill down and work on one or at most two strategic issues. If we were an established traditional board we probably would not have come up with such a format.

Since we have a significant number of out of town Board members a tradition developed of having dinner the night before with the meeting held the following morning. At the first dinner, one member happened to have met early in the day with an accomplished author and asked if he could join us for the dinner. This led to a tradition of having a guest speaker at our evening dinner. In so doing, the dinners have become a very special bonding event, and also allows us the opportunity to invite faculty to speak on things happening at the school.

I am pleased to say that we have had early philanthropic success beyond my expectations – over $15 million raised directly by board members coupled with leads generated through the board. However, I really consider our greatest success to be the community we have built among the board membership and how truly committed to our mission they have become.

One final piece of advice: nothing beats action. Stop talking about forming the board and get started. It won’t be perfect, there will be mishaps, learn from them and move forward.


Phil Brach is the Assistant Dean of the School of Business and Economics and an Adjunct Lecturer. His career has been characterized by innovation, strategic planning, and results. Over the course of more than two decades, Dean Brach has held several posts in the for-profit, non-profit and government sectors. As Assistant Dean, he oversees resource development for the school.

Dean Brach began his career with Mobil Oil in their Los Angeles downstream operations. He helped chart a 10-year strategic plan for Mobil’s West Coast operations that included market position, market expansion, mergers, and acquisitions. In 1995, Dean Brach became a marketing strategy consultant for Ernst and Young. In that capacity, he worked with clients to coordinate an integrated communication plan and helped define products and analyze pricing scenarios, competitors, and distribution channels.

Dean Brach left Ernst and Young in 1996 to help found the SQAD Company, of which he then became the Vice President and CFO. During his time there, he was awarded three patents for innovative marketing inventions.

Dean Brach sold his stake in the SQAD Company and turned his skills and energy towards the non-profit sector. He became the Director of Operations for the Midtown Center for Boys. His role later expanded to his being the Executive Director of the entire Midtown Educational Foundation, a Chicago-based non-profit organization. The Foundation sponsors programs to help inner-city youth achieve academic excellence and develop strong moral character.

In 2004, Dean Brach returned to his high school alma mater, St. John’s College High School, in Washington, D.C., where he served as Vice President. In this capacity, he oversaw all fundraising, alumni relations and external communications. He also directed the production of all external communications, including the publishing of an award-winning alumni magazine.

After seven years at St. John’s, he took a year sabbatical working as the Chief of Staff for Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. After spending time as the Director of Development for the Sellinger School of Business at Loyola University of Maryland, he joined CUA in his current role.

Dean Brach, the father of eight children, resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife Liz.



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