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Improving Board Education for Not-for-profits

Passion is often the thing that motivates people to serve on a not-for-profit board, but passion alone only takes them so far. It’s not uncommon for not-for-profit board members to have little or no knowledge or experience in governance matters. Best practices for not-for-profit boards suggest that boards should have regular training opportunities to improve their leadership capabilities and to protect themselves and their organisations from liability issues.

Board members that have lengthy board experience shouldn’t get a bye with board governance education. Not-for-profit governance is continually evolving. No matter how long someone has served on a board, there is always something new to learn and share with others. Seasoned board members aren’t always interested in getting more training and education, so it can be difficult to get them to support board learning.

Board education doesn’t have to infringe greatly on board members’ time. There are many opportunities for board members to pick up information that will help them be stronger leaders.

Related article: The Board’s Role in Developing a Strategy Plan for a Not-for-profit

How Important Is Board Governance Training?

Well-educated boards hold more efficient meetings and make better decisions. Not-for-profit boards often have term limits. Board education begins with board orientation and onboarding, but governance education shouldn’t stop there. Board terms may run for 3-5 years, so the time to begin with board education is as soon as someone joins your board.

When boards commit to regular board education, they’re ensuring that they have continuous strong leadership even as some board terms end and others begin.

No one likes board meetings that are dull and dreary, or sloppy and unproductive. Individual board members usually serve on committees. Whatever tasks they take on, they have individual and collective responsibility to fulfill their duties as a reasonably responsible person would under the same circumstances. When all board members understand their roles and are willing to tend to their duties, board meetings run more smoothly, and board discussions are sure to engaging and enlightening.

Active nonprofit boards can make a huge impact on their communities. Board members are the examples at the top that inspire staff and volunteers to work even more diligently to fulfill their duties. Ultimately communities get the benefit of everyone’s efforts.

Competition for not-for-profit funding is fierce in the not-for-profit world. A board that can describe the actions they’re taking to educate their board members speaks volumes to grant-makers and major donors. To have a chance at getting funding, boards need to be familiar with the criteria that funders want to see on their applications. Board education can make the difference in getting major sponsors or losing out.

Related article: 3 Reasons Why Document Sharing Apps Are Not Enough for Boards

Not-for-profit Board Member Liability and Accountability

When boards aren’t clear on what their responsibilities are, it leaves them vulnerable to liability issues. Due to recent negative media attention on not-for-profit boards that misused funds or behaved badly, nonprofits are facing a fair share of scrutiny.

A good start is to board education is to initiate a board discussion around whether board members truly know what their board responsibilities are. By bringing up various types of situations that have the potential for a liability suit, your board members will come to realise the risks in blindly following stronger members. Every member of the board is responsible for the decisions the board makes.

In your board discussions about liability, be aware of the potential parties that could press a legal issue including:

  • Current or former staff over wrongful acts.
  • Third parties that have a relationship with your officers, staff, or volunteers over alleged harm.
  • The entity may bring legal action against its officers and directors (most D&O insurance policies exclude this type of liability).
  • Directors bringing suit against other directors for alleged violations of their duties.
  • Beneficiaries over wrongdoing by someone in the not-for-profit.
  • Members alleging harm by actions of directors or officers.
  • Donors over misusing funds.
  • State Attorney General or other government officials over alleging wrongdoing or violation of state or federal laws.

Not-for-profit board members are legally liable for the organisation. Board education ensures that all board members are aware of their legal responsibilities and it helps them make informed decisions.

Related article: Board Evaluations: The Complete Guide for Not-for-profits

Board Education Takes Various Forms

Contrary to what some of your board members may believe, board education doesn’t have to be lengthy or difficult to set up. Board education can take on almost any form.

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about ways to incorporate board education:

  • Allot time on the agenda to bring a speaker in for a short talk.
  • Ask board members to choose a meeting date to give a short presentation on a governance topic.
  • Arrange for all board members to attend a workshop or seminar on a governance topic.
  • Develop a list of podcasts, video classes, audio classes, or other media on governance topics for board members to choose from.
  • Ask a member of your business community to give a presentation on a governance topic at a board meeting.

You may find that your board members already have lots of information and experience to share. By taking the time to bring discussions out in the open, every board member has something to gain.

Related article: Why Should Not-for-profit Boards Consider a Board Portal?

Identifying Topics for Board Education

You’re sure to find that there is no shortage of topics on board education once you start looking for opportunities to inform your board. How do you find appropriate topics? Once your board gets talking about governance issues, your list will begin to take shape.

Here’s a list of general governance topics not-for-profit boards should take notice of:

  • Finances
  • Parliamentary procedure
  • Grantmaking
  • Fundraising
  • Auditing
  • Leadership
  • Recruitment
  • Fiduciary duties
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Code of Ethics
  • Whistleblower Protection
  • Document Retention

Why not establish a learning library within your BoardEffect board portal? Your portal provides unlimited cloud storage, making it the perfect solution for storing board education materials. With granular permissions, your board members will be able to access articles any time they need to.

In conclusion, board education is a vital board responsibility and it’s something that can breathe new life into your board. By not taking this responsibility seriously, not-for-profit boards put themselves and their organisations at risk. Overall, the board’s responsibility is to advance the organisation’s mission and serve their communities. Good governance practices ensure that your board is living up to its duties.

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