Send Your Board Back To School

Send Your Board Back to School

As back-to-school anticipation permeates the August air, students of all ages gear up for another cycle of learning. Pencils, notebooks, laptops, and iPads fly off shelves and summer fades into study season. So culturally conditioned are we to schooling that those not enrolling might experience pangs of education envy.

Fortunately, education is an ongoing process. Whether a new business strategy, an innovative parenting technique, or a technology upgrade, each opportunity to grasp a new concept can be exciting because humans like to learn. Why, then, do we sometimes deprive boards of directors of this basic benefit?

Board Training vs. Education

For nonprofit boards, success obviously aligns with advancement of mission, so it’s important for board members to learn not just about operational standards, but also about the benchmarks of and obstacles to organizational goals. Time is limited, though, for volunteer leaders, so learning tends to be concentrated on board responsibilities – how to execute them – rather than the context in which they are actualized. By using the terms training and education somewhat interchangeably, the nonprofit sector often shortchanges board members of critical knowledge they need.

As the chief executive of a $7M health-related nonprofit explains, “we have a complex business model and it’s enough to keep board members current…The best bit of board education we do is the clarity of our job description for board members.” Over a series of conference calls with new board members, she and board leaders review each responsibility and its implications.

While essential, that effort constitutes an element of board training, not board education, which she acknowledges is a new priority. In essence, training is skill-based, whereas education is rooted in theory.

“The chair of our governance committee has aimed to offer regular webinars for board members, who live all over the country,” the CEO continues. “It’s been hard, in large part because participation is not required. And there’s so much to cover,” from fundraising to finance and the form 990. But it’s not just the business the board must understand. “Our mission has many elements, so we need to educate board members on what organizational success actually means.”

Board-led Learning

In that case, the board relies upon the chief executive to keep board members apprised of what they need to know. In an ideal scenario, board members “own” some responsibility for their individual learning, just as any of us would when accepting and aiming to thrive in any job. Though typically unpaid, nonprofit board service is a job. As noted by Compasspoint, “a board member that steps into the role of learner – eagerly and with humility – is an invaluable asset to an organization.”

Indeed, a culture of continuous learning is a key indicator of an exceptional board and Compasspoint offers board members some ideas for fostering learning in collaboration with the CEO:

  • Governance Refreshers – Assume all will benefit from annual board trainings, so include them on schedule.
  • Orientation – add governance to the board orientation agenda and invite all board members (not just new ones) to attend.
  • Awareness – include a discussion of governance in action at every board meeting to illustrate how board members foster good governance in their everyday activity.
  • Trends – stay abreast of governance issues impacting the nonprofit sector – and mission-related issues impacting the organization – by assigning board members to subscribe to specific publications and share key updates.

Along those lines, the board chair of a nonprofit educational institution explains how his board stays savvy. “Our committee on trustees handles the care and feeding of the board, identifying annual educational themes based on the strategic plan. The committee outlines what the board must accomplish to execute it, then identifies what knowledge will be necessary to do so.” He adds that various board members are tapped to attend professional development trainings offered by associations in the field. The committee keeps track of board members’ educational activities and builds time into board meeting agendas for shared learning.

Deliberate Design

Distributing responsibility for learning can be an effective tool for promoting board knowledge. At the same time, Boardsource reminds us to prevent boards from over-relying upon individual board members’ ability to determine what matters. It is important to ensure everyone attains appropriate levels of knowledge and skill through a deliberate board education program designed to ensure all board members have the tools they need.

According to Boardsource, as posted by Bridgespan, the following approach can be helpful:

  • Pose a broad policy question: What information must board members know to be effective and make sound decisions? Determine what types of knowledge are appropriate for which people, in what form, and how often.
  • Start a preliminary list of educational needs by inviting seasoned board members to respond to the question, “What do you wish you had known as a new board member that you were never told but that would have made a difference in your understanding of this board’s work?”
  • Solicit committee input: ask each committee for a compilation of information needed (including acronyms and other lingo, background needed to read reports, understanding of context, etc.) to understand each committee’s activities.
  • Identify program information needs: solicit input from staff about important concepts, principles, awareness, and sensitivity.
  • Review educational materials: decide which would be appropriate to use for board education.
  • Develop a comprehensive board education plan: provide a schedule of information to be given to – and developed among — board members.

Naturally, an effective board education plan is not generic, but tailored to the organization. Serving as the board member of a nonprofit credit union is different than serving on a nonprofit hospital board, so topics of board education should vary, as well.

Educational Advantage

When the board member of a Land Trust in NY joined the staff as president, for instance, she recognized her knowledge gap. According to Saving Land, as posted by the Land Trust Alliance, the new president had previously focused on the business side of running a nonprofit, so she paused to consider what she could do in her new role to keep her board informed and educated about what the organization actually did.

Since then, the emphasis of board meetings changed from “how we do it to what we do.” The board chair acknowledges that ramping up education enhanced board members’ passion for the mission and their ability to speak about it “more articulately and compellingly… which makes them better fundraisers.”

In addition, he points out that board members serve for numerous reasons which almost always include personal and professional growth. Board members can apply cumulative knowledge toward their businesses and personal lives, not to mention the organizations they serve currently – and in the future.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.