Am I Doing This Right? Embracing the Need for Board Training

An interesting pattern I've noticed in my Google Alerts feed is a common tendency for local communities to advertise nonprofit board training programs in their area. Community foundations or local governments will, from time-to-time, offer educational resources and training seminars on nonprofit governance and board service. I like seeing this trend as it demonstrates to me how high the demand for quality board education truly is. Nonprofits are so prevalent in our society that how they are governed is a notable concern. And frankly, being on a board can be so daunting and perplexing that proper board education is a necessity.

Consider, for example, the challenge of working with a group of individuals - most of whom may not have any expertise in organizational strategy - to establish a mission, vision and strategic goals. Imagine the rather odd dynamic of sitting in a room with a dozen or so other leaders being told to debate and disagree with each other one minute, then to "speak with one voice" the next. And what can be more confusing than to be handed a conflict of interest policy with a vague insinuation that some-such relationship may (or may not) prevent you from participating?

While a seemingly simple job, board service can be rife with complex situations, some of which might have serious consequences if not handled properly. The idea of putting these situations in the hands of John or Jill Q. Citizen can even seem a little unfair, especially when you recognize the potential for personal liability that comes with the role. It would be a small wonder if board members the world over are asking themselves "Am I doing this right?"

To any and all board members asking themselves this question - I say good for you! You are recognizing a need for further governance training, which is important. Every nonprofit board member needs to be educated in the fundamentals of nonprofit governance and taught their legal and strategic responsibilities as a director or trustee.

In a perfect world, every locality would be able to offer that kind of education, but in reality board members often find themselves looking for that help on their own. If you and/or your board need governance training, professionals like me are here to help!

If you need some immediate guidance though, here are some questions you can ask yourself to gage whether you are currently on the right track as a board member.

  • Am I engaged? – Being an engaged board member means you bring your whole self into the role and actively contribute to the board's work. Your board position is a real commitment and not simply another line on your resume. Your participation is a productive part of the board's capacity to accomplish its core duties and functions.
  • Am I prepared? – Part of a board member's duty of care involves coming to the table prepared to discuss and deliberate. This amounts to some very simple actions: doing your homework, reading the board materials, requesting additional information if necessary, to satisfy any questions/concerns you may have about the organization's activities.
  • Am I being curious? – Board members also need to come to the table ready to ask productive questions and participate in open deliberation. Curious board members are open to learning from and listening to others and are willing to come to a consensus to serve the best interests of the organization.
  • Am I being generous? – In addition to being a generous donor, being a generous board member means making significant contributions of time, talent and good will in service to the organization. There is also a kind of generosity that comes with being a good team player – being an attentive listener, a good colleague and a contributor to the board’s deliberations.
  • Am I being transparent? - All board members have a duty of loyalty to put the interests of the organizations ahead of other interests when making decisions. Loyal board members are open and honest about any relationships they have that might conflict with the interests of the organization. Conflicts of interest can happen to anyone, so it's important to err on the side of caution when in doubt, disclose real or potential conflicts and be prepared to recuse yourself if necessary.
  • Am I aware of what's going? – Ultimately, being a good board member means knowing what’s happening in the organization. It doesn't mean you have to know everything, but it means knowing enough to be confident that the organization is operating as it should; that no policies, bylaws or laws are being violated and the organization's mission and values are consistently upheld.

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no,' it probably merits a conversation with your board chair. It could be that you are not alone and more can be done to support all board members with certain challenges. Board chairs need to be particularly receptive to improving board member engagement overall. It could also be that the board position isn't the right fit for you, which is fine. Being a good board member is just as much about deciding when to make a greater effort and when to take a step back.

Now, this little introspective exercise is not exhaustive and is just a way for a single board member to engage in a sort of informal self-assessment. Even better than this is to encourage fellow directors to conduct a formal board assessment to identify opportunities for board development that could benefit everyone. Formal board training is a great way to solidify best practices and have them embedded in the board's shared norms and practices. Above all - striving to learn and grow as a board can set everyone up to to the job right!

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Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. Learn more at www.millerbleichconsulting.com

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