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Training is Transformational

Training is an expectation - not an exception - for nonprofit boards to create a collective understanding of good governance.
byErin PiersononNovember 9, 2022

Most of us start our first nonprofit board service terms more or less blind: picking up on queues from well-seasoned board members, learning quickly, and understanding culture and practices as time goes on. Can you imagine the impact you would make on day one if you simply had a strong understanding of how to lead? Or how that impact could be amplified if every board member entered with the same understanding of what strong boardroom leadership looks like? Training is the route to that transformation.

Governance training - early and often - is the key to success as a board member. However, so few organizations truly prioritize governance training for board members. Some organizations do have formal onboarding programs and mentorship opportunities or invest in courses for their board members. But when the task of learning your role and responsibilities falls upon individual board members, the opportunity for shared understanding can be challenging, and results for the organization are less potent.

These four tips can help you and your fellow board members lean into your roles, govern effectively, and advance your organization's mission through great leadership.

1. Be the training champion.

The first step is to ask. While the vast majority of nonprofit boards have a formal governance and nominating committee, these groups often focus on procedural matters like the identification, nomination, and onboarding of board members. Training should be just as critical. Ask your Executive Director, Chair, or Governance Committee if training is on the agenda, or join the committee to help lead this effort.

2. Identify your knowledge gaps.

Every board benefits from a shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities of board members, but some boards need specific training in order to thrive. Is your board undergoing a capital campaign soon? Seek a fundraising expert. Setting a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan for the organization? Identifying governance skills gaps can help prioritize which training is necessary beyond the fundamentals. Identify and invest in a consultant to provide training and support this work.

Spotting gaps can also be an opportunity to ask about who on the board might have experiences to share. Do any current board members or staff have advanced knowledge of your policy area, a nuanced understanding of your constituents, or previous board experience with a similar cause area? This might be an opportunity for staff to share their expertise and connect more deeply with the board.

3. Find resources or trainers.

There are a number of resources for nonprofit leaders - from first-time directors to seasoned leaders on boards. Cause Strategy Partners' Resources Page is a great place to start for foundational governance topics and for continued learning with more advanced topics. As you dig further online, you’ll find a wide variety of courses, materials, and thought leadership for your own board service journey.

However, this can also be an opportunity to share the wisdom and experience of leaders already in your fold. Don’t forget to look within your own organization. Your board may already have directors with experience and insights to share. Give your star fundraisers the opportunity to speak about their process at the next board meeting; offer your treasurer the chance to walk the board through the financials from their vantage point. Look to your seasoned board members for support.

4. Train and repeat. And repeat.

Once your board has identified its training needs and a plan for meeting them, the final step is to establish a long-term plan for governance training. Fostering a culture of growth and learning is important for any board, and ensuring that there are consistent, accessible, customizable, and engaging ways to continue this training is key for sustainability. These four guidelines are the foundation for a well-informed and trained board as your organization grows.

  • Make it consistent. The best organizations have integrated training into their annual calendars, ensuring that every board member - in their first year or their third term - has access to consistent information on the roles and responsibilities of board membership. Balance this with a once-annual opportunity to reset expectations, opportunities, and the mission and work of your organization so that everyone is aligned with expectations.
  • Make it personal. Ensure the training speaks directly to your organization’s mission and sector, or that your board has an opportunity to unpack how the training is operationalized. Many boards spend time discussing trends or hearing from field experts, and others invest time in more deeply understanding location or community-based challenges facing the organization. Looking at training through the lens of your organization’s positioning and applying an intersectional approach to learning experiences will no doubt deepen the experience for your board.
  • Make it accessible. Mixing virtual with in-person training gives your board a chance to tap into learning in a variety of ways. Giving your board a variety of options to dig into content can deepen the experience - whether through self-reflection and ideation or peer sharing and collaborative learning.
  • Make it fun. Board training - especially in-person training - can be a fantastic bonding opportunity as well. Pairing training with culture-building opportunities, staff dinners, or other social activities can bring a board closer as they share the experience of learning together.

Cause Strategy Partners offers a fantastic resource for new board members - BoardLearn. This online, self-paced training course gives new board members everything they need to start strong. Beyond this, our organization regularly holds free trainings for nonprofit leadership, such as our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion series for nonprofit executives participating in BoardLead.

As you advocate for training at your own organization, we’d love to hear from you! What are some ways in which your organization has prioritized training? What obstacles have you faced? If you’re just starting this journey as a board, we’d love to connect on your strategy for transforming your own board.

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