by Jodi Snell, senior consultant, Hedges
The most common pain point we’re hearing about from the nonprofit community is how to increase board engagement. Despite good intentions, some board members are struggling to make in-person meetings work with their back-to-the office schedules, others turn off their video and multi-task during board meetings, and yet others have a hard time following-through with assigned tasks. In a world where there is never enough time, and we all have competing priorities, the need to focus on what is essential has never seemed more important.
So, the question isn’t just how do we engage our board, but how do we engage our board in its most essential functions? At Hedges, we have found the key to engaging board members in the ways they’re needed most comes through effective training and setting clear expectations. If board members don’t know their responsibilities or how to execute those responsibilities, then successfully engaging as a board member will be quite the challenge.
When we onboard new staff, we are mindful of making sure that expectations are clearly communicated and that staff are adequately trained to meet those expectations. The same should be true for board members of our organizations. Based on our experience in educating board members through our work with nonprofit organizations and in our Lead with Purpose Board Training Series, we find the following three items to be at the core of successful nonprofit board education:
- Prioritize board training and onboarding. Prioritizing board training and onboarding is as important as prioritizing the training and onboarding of your staff members. This prioritization can happen in different ways. The first way to prioritize board training is to instill a culture of learning for the organization, including the board. This culture gives board members permission to seek information, not have all the answers, and know they will have access to the information necessary for them to engage in their key responsibilities. The second way is to allocate appropriate financial resources to provide initial and ongoing education opportunities for board members. Whether those resources are used for individual members to attend different workshops in the community or to bring in a third-party to provide training to the full board, prioritizing financial resources will be important to ensuring access to the best practice knowledge they need. The third way to prioritize board training is to allow realistic time for members to be trained and onboarded. Often board onboarding is done over one short meeting or even a document provided electronically via email. Whether it’s setting aside a full day, a couple of hours, or part of a board meeting, providing time for board members to receive training is key to successfully educating the board.
- Create a partnership between the Board and the Executive Director. The misconception that the board should be managing the Executive Director creates a tenacious power dynamic. When the board is trained and onboarded in a way that helps them to understand their valuable and distinct role as a board member, it is much easier to build a productive partnership between the Executive Director and board. This partnership can be built on shared leadership and learning where the Executive Director and the board lead together and learn from each other. In this shared leadership and learning, meaningful conversations and trust build making it easier to operationalize board governance best practices. Additionally, a board that is trained and that doesn’t have to be managed empowers the Executive Director to focus on their unique role in leading the organization to success rather than spending time “managing up.”
- Continually assess the board to understand their strengths and needs. Just like professional development for our staff members is ongoing process, learning for our board members should be continuous. Board training is not just a one-time event, but an ongoing component of healthy governance. As a start, it is good practice to train new board members during board orientation as they join your organization. In addition, it is good to provide the opportunity for board members to assess themselves and identify areas for continued learning. This can happen through a formal board self-assessment, a simple board survey, or a conversation between the Executive Director and board members to understand:
- How well do they think they are executing their responsibilities as individual board members and as a full board?
- What needs or questions do they have about their role as a board member?
- Do they feel they have received enough training to engage in an effective way?
- Do they find this experience to be meaningful to them and what could make it more meaningful?
By understanding these things, continual education can be provided to the board in the topics where they need the most support. Fundamentally, board members should receive consistent training and “refreshers” on general information about the organization, like your vision and goals; the basic responsibilities of board membership; how to best engage in fundraising; how to recruit, onboard, and offboard members; and the purpose of committees, and what it means to keep committees active and effective. However, having the board assess itself regularly creates time for reflection and gives board members an opportunity to identify where they might need to focus individually and as a board to maximize their efforts for the organization.
In our 20 years of experience in nonprofit advising, our team at Hedges has learned that board engagement is critical to an organization’s success. An engaged board is a trained board, and board training is a constant, ongoing process. If you’re spinning your wheels wondering: “Why is my board struggling to engage in its essential functions?” consider implementing the three steps we’ve outlined above.
Want additional support? Encourage your Board members to join our next Lead with Purpose Series, offered from August through November 2022. For more information visit: https://www.hellohedges.com/training/.
Jodi Snell is Senior Consultant at Hedges and a BoardSource Certified Consultant who loves to empower board members on how to be most effective in their roles. With a passion for educating and training, Jodi works closely with organizations to lend her expertise related to board governance, fundraising, and strategic planning.