By Amy Phipps
If you need a doctor, you wouldn’t choose someone who hadn’t been to medical school. Why then does it seem that nonprofit board members don’t receive the training they need?
In a perfect world, board members would be well-educated and informed, leading to deeper engagement and greater effectiveness. But the reality is a little different.
According to Leading with Intent, a national index of nonprofit board practices published by BoardSource in 2015, only 19% of CEOs strongly agree that the majority of board members are engaged. But, despite their efforts, only 21% of board chairs agree that board orientations are effective.
So what can you do to bridge this gap? First, think about the different skillsets that bring board members to you, and the different areas of your business model. Assess how the two overlap and identify the gaps. The following needs will probably emerge:
A general orientation, both at initial onboarding and as an annual refresher is essential. This includes an overview of the nonprofit sector, the structure of your agency, and specific written expectations of board members. Other elements of orientation could include a tour of the agency, meetings with other board members, and a packet (paper or electronic) with previous agendas, minutes, bylaws, budgets, board policies (including conflict of interest), committee structure, board and staff contact info, a calendar with important dates, board member job description and board member agreement.
The board member agreement can be confined to one page, should be clear and concise, and specify all expectations for meeting and committee participation, giving, and fundraising, along with a place for board member signature. Financial education is always appropriate. Many of your board members may not be entirely familiar with nonprofit accounting, but it’s just human nature to avoid admitting ignorance. Empower them with knowledge, and they’ll be better advocates for your organization.
Program education can include current developments in the nonprofit sector you occupy, and an in-depth dive into your programs.
Governance, including Board roles and responsibilities and meeting management, can enhance a Board member’s skillset, even beyond your organization.
Messaging – ensuring all board members can articulate your mission – can be an energizing addition to a regular board meeting.
And finally, fundraising – is an ever-present need. In the opinion of board chairs and CEOs surveyed by BoardSource strengthening the board’s fundraising efforts was the most important area of performance. You can hold these trainings at a retreat, but you don’t have to wait. Your coverage may be greater if you can find ways to integrate a bit of training into your regular meetings, either with staff or outside experts.
A yearly board evaluation process (individually and as a group) will unearth topics that need more attention.
When your board members are prepared and empowered with knowledge about your organization, they’ll be more confident in taking on the tasks you ask of them, and more engaged with and enthusiastic about your work. In the end, the question is not really why would you do board training, but why would you not?