A lot has been written about nonprofit boards, their role in your organization, and how to recruit and engage them – almost all to the exclusion of one simple but critical fact:
Your nonprofit board is your nonprofit.
You might say that the board is the “alpha and omega” of a nonprofit. Nonprofits are started by a group of people who form the board. A nonprofit ends its existence with the ascent of the board. In between, the board determines the nonprofit’s mission, hires a nonprofit’s leadership and answers to their community and their state of incorporation for the nonprofit’s performance and more.
Without the board, a nonprofit doesn’t exist, legally, missionally, or programmatically.
In short, being a member of a board doesn’t mean you’re playing around.
Sure, it’s an honor to be on a board. A board member has a “pillar in the community” status no matter what the cause or size of the nonprofit. And with great honor comes great responsibility.
Board members soon find out that it’s more than the benefits. It’s work.
A board member may be (should be) on the board because they love the nonprofit’s mission. Yet while a board member’s work has a great impact on the mission, a board member has little direct contact with the mission. It’s about finding, spending, and accounting for money. It’s about facilities and operations. It’s about promoting the nonprofit’s brand and creating relationships that can lead to mission fulfillment.
And any board member quickly finds out that they can’t know everything about everything their nonprofit does and their role to facilitate it. That’s why nonprofit board training is so important. Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide:
- What is the role of a nonprofit board?
- What skills are needed on a nonprofit board?
- What is nonprofit board training?
- Nonprofit Board Training: Onboarding in 3 Steps
- Nonprofit Board Training: Ongoing Learning Resources
What is the role of a nonprofit board?
On a day-to-day basis, the nonprofit board member’s role is policymaking – seeing the big picture and serving as the organization’s fiduciary. In other words, you and your fellow board members have a responsibility to see that the nonprofit is run in a legal and financially suitable manner.
While you can do programmatic functions, especially as a “working board” member, you’re really taking on the role of a “regular volunteer” (albeit a very dedicated regular volunteer). In this capacity, you’re not functioning in your role as a board member, although others may think that you are.
So, how does your big picture function work?
It starts with a committee assignment. Every board member should serve on a committee tasked with overseeing a specific aspect of the nonprofit. Your nonprofit’s committees might include the executive committee, finance or budgets, programs, fundraising, marketing, or what’s arguably the most important committee: governance and board evaluation.
It’s in the committees that the real work of the board is done. You’re there to monitor, evaluate, and support the staff and volunteers who carry out the everyday tasks in your area. Sometimes that means giving advice. Sometimes that’s hearing from outside experts. Sometimes that’s learning about and approving new ways of getting the job done. Other times it’s simply making sure that the staff and volunteers are doing their jobs in a way that conforms to acceptable practices.
Of course, you need to attend full board meetings. Full board meetings are where you get to see the big picture of your nonprofit and approve or question the functions of the other committees. It is essential that you prepare for your board meetings. That means reading documents or watching videos as they’re provided. Too many times board members “wing it” and show up without the proper background to make informed decisions. Can you get away with it? A lot of times, yes. But it’s a recipe for disaster when too many people do, or you come unprepared to make a critical decision and are called to account for yourself later (like in a lawsuit.) Am I trying to scare you? Yes. As a very wise man said more than a century ago: Be prepared!
There are two more essential functions you’ll face as a nonprofit board member, regardless of your other roles:
- Marketing. As a board member, you have a responsibility to, at a minimum, chat up your organization to your friends and community and show support by attending events. It may not be obvious how important this is, but people see you as your nonprofit’s ambassador. Major donors, business owners, government leaders, and other key community stakeholders all closely associate your name with your nonprofit. What you do and say speaks volumes.
- Fundraising. Proper financing of a nonprofit is one of the top responsibilities of any board. To start, that means you MUST make your own gift to your nonprofit. “I give my time, not my money” doesn’t count. It comes down to “If you don’t give, how can you expect others to do the same?” How much should you give? Your nonprofit may have set minimums. Regardless, at least more than you give to any other organization like the one you serve, if not the most you give to any organization. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s essential that you support your nonprofit’s fundraising programs – not necessarily by soliciting, but through activities that either precede or follow a solicitation, such as calling donors to thank them for their gift, providing networking contacts of friends who may have an interest in your mission, or giving a tour of your facilities.
Knowing your role as a board member is essential to the smooth functioning of your nonprofit. If you get involved in too much minutia, you’ll dishearten the staff and volunteers. They may not feel they can push back, even if you’re doing something incorrectly or wasteful, because you’re a board member. On the other hand, you can’t take a hands-off approach. It’s your job to know whether things are running right or not.
What skills are needed on a nonprofit board?
A lot, and none.
There are no specific board member qualifications required by the IRS, states, or any other organization. That’s one of the great things about nonprofits – anyone can serve on a nonprofit board, and everyone does. In that regard, nonprofits show the best in democracy.
However, there is one qualification that all board members need: dedication to the nonprofit’s mission. Being a board member will get tough. You’ll make hard decisions, and there may be days you’ll want to quit. Since it’s not your paycheck job, you might say, “This isn’t worth it.” That’s where dedication comes in. Before you walk away, you need to say to yourself, “Can I look in the eyes of my clients/patients/students and say, ‘I’m outta here’?” Remember, you’re not serving on the board for you. You’re doing it for them.
The good news/bad news about nonprofit boards is that while you should be dedicated to your mission, you don’t need to be an expert in it. This is good because you can take an outsider’s perspective on the work required to meet your mission. It’s bad because you can frustrate the staff you hire, who are experts, with your constant need for education on best practices. Therefore, it is your responsibility to educate yourself as much about your mission as possible. You’ll always be a layperson in the mission, but being a well-educated layperson is a major advantage to you and your nonprofit.
As for specific skills? You’ll need someone who is “accounting adept” (not necessarily a CPA, but who can read profit and loss statements and other financial documents and ask intelligent questions). Having at least one mission expert is very helpful so they can professionally evaluate the programming and help educate fellow board members. Some boards like to have a lawyer with them for their expertise (however, note that nonprofit law is a specialty, so your lawyer board member may not have that expertise). If you have facilities, then having a facility expert helps. You’ll need to look at your functions to see what other expertise can be advantageous.
Here are some others…
- Decision-making skills. Your board is a decision-making body. You need cooperative decision-making skills. While some people will naturally take the lead on some issues, you can’t afford to have any autocrats. Remember, you’re all responsible for the board’s decisions. Even if you don’t agree, register your concerns and move ahead with what the board as a whole decides.
- Organizational skills. The biggest challenge for most nonprofit board members is to organize themselves. Board meeting notes, committee reports, accounting statements, and more can stack up very quickly. Plus, there are activities and events you’ll need to attend. It can be a job on top of a job.
- Fundraising skills. As noted above, fundraising is a core responsibility. The problem is that too many board members equate fundraising with asking. While asking for support is essential, there’s a lot more to fundraising than that. Someone needs to identify possible donors, help connect with them, and show them how your nonprofit fulfills its mission. After the solicitation, there are thank yous to make and re-engagement to focus on with the donor for their next gift. If you want to ask, do – by all means – but don’t think that if you can’t ask you can’t fundraise. To learn more about fundraising, check out this list of 29 nonprofit resources for doing so.
- Marketing skills. Again, a core function, but an often misunderstood one. Really what we’re talking about are relationship-nurturing skills that are applied to donors, sponsors, volunteers, and more. People want to feel good about working with your mission. Help them with that.
- Money management skills. You don’t need to be an accountant, but you do need to understand budgets. Even better, learn how to read balance sheets and reports. Even a basic understanding of these documents will go a long way to help you grasp the financial position of your nonprofit – and fulfill a major board function.
- Teamwork skills. As a board member, you’re responsible, but you’re not the boss. That’s hard to see when every staff member or volunteer seems to differ in opinion. Think of an upside-down triangle. That’s where you and your fellow board members sit in the organizational chart. The staff and volunteers sit in a right-side-up triangle just below yours. The two triangles only intersect at their tips – the board chair at the tip of your down-facing triangle, and the executive director at the tip of the upward-facing triangle. The board chair is the only boss of the executive director. The executive director is the boss of the staff. When you cross between the triangles to interact with the staff or the executive director, you can cause all sorts of confusion and angst, unless everyone knows there is a specific purpose or assignment that leads you over the boundary, like helping the fundraising staff with their work. Even in that circumstance, your job isn’t to be the boss, it’s to help the function. If you have concerns about staff, take them to the board chair, who will take them to the executive director.
What is nonprofit board training?
No two nonprofit boards run alike, so even if you have served before, you’re going to need training on your new board.
But the truth is that too few nonprofits really train their boards, anyhow. That’s more than too bad. That can be a serious liability.
Board training is more than getting to know the new guy over a nice lunch. Board training is an ongoing experience that starts with an orientation to board functionality and mission fulfillment, and eventually digs into your board member’s legal responsibilities, the board functions mentioned above, and continual updates on mission progress.
Nonprofit Board Training: Onboarding in 3 Steps
Solid nonprofit board training starts with “onboarding.”
It’s important that new board members quickly fit into their role as board members and as valued members of the organization. Just like a paycheck job, it starts with a new board member getting to know their way around – around the documents, the programs, and yes, even where the bathrooms are near the meeting room.
Let’s dive deeper by looking at the three main steps of onboarding.
1. Bring new board members up to speed on your mission, history, vision, and values.
Number one is to get the new board member focused on your mission. Remember when we said that dedication to the mission is essential? Now they get to see how the mission is fulfilled. If they’re dedicated, that can be pretty exciting. Even someone who doesn’t expect to work directly with the mission needs to be enthusiastic about it and the importance of their role in supporting it.
Along with seeing what you’re doing today, the new board member needs to see your vision for the future of the mission. As a new insider who can shape that vision, this can be just as exciting as seeing how you carry out your mission today.
We can’t forget about history. Nearly every nonprofit has an exciting origin story with a founder or group of founders who saw a problem and resolved to fix it. Help your new board members see themselves as worthy successors to those founders.
Of course, all of this is within the context of your values. Are your values written down? They should be, and even more important, you should be living them. Don’t expect new board members to “pick up the vibe” of your values. Tell them directly, and hold yourself accountable for following them.
2. Supply new members with important documentation.
Now is the time to share the information that makes your nonprofit tick. Do you have a board binder with all your details, like organizational charts, development plans, and accounting and fundraising reports? Even better, how about an online board portal? They’re an insider now, so board roles and responsibilities/job descriptions, the organization’s bylaws, financial data, current board members’ photos and bios, an events calendar, a list of committees, a list of policies, etc. should all be at their fingertips.
3. Host an orientation meeting.
It’s essential to host an orientation meeting, in person if at all possible. Invite key board members and the executive director. Review current programs and projects, the current strategy and goals for your nonprofit, expectations for board members, and logistical things like when and where board meetings will be and what board members should be doing in between those meetings. This will be a lot of information to take in, so encourage them to take notes, and be available for further clarification. You might even record portions for their review.
Nonprofit Board Training: Ongoing Learning Resources
Beyond onboarding, your nonprofit board should be encouraged to constantly learn and improve. That’s where nonprofit board training materials, like the resources aggregated by Nonprofit.Courses, come in. Let’s look at five of these ongoing learning resources that can benefit your board.
Discover the tools and techniques necessary to lay the foundation of a rock-solid board of directors.
Well-governed nonprofits are more likely to obey tax law, safeguard charitable assets, and serve charitable interests than those with poor or lax governance. Directors bear ultimate responsibility for the charity, and they should be aware of their fiduciary duties. This course will address the basic rules and best practices for boards of directors to follow to assist them in fulfilling their duties. These rules draw upon federal tax laws and state nonprofit laws. Navigating the complexities of the laws becomes more manageable once one becomes acquainted with the policies that assist directors with identifying the markers to keep their organization on track. Directors can then fulfill their duties and be guardians to ensure that the charitable interests are properly served.
Do you wish your organization used committees better? Are there too many or not enough? Need a better system for committees and the board to communicate with each other? This webinar is for YOU!
Get actionable advice from Dr. Joynicole Martinez, founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Alchemist Agency, on helping your committees and board work better together. The following topics will be covered:
- What an effective committee structure looks like, and who should be in what positions
- Tips and tricks for conducting efficient committee meetings and reporting on the results
- Proven ways to increase results between meetings with better committee practices
Fundraising Culture Changer & Master Storyteller Lori L. Jacobwith joined the Bloomerang team to answer some thought-provoking questions about the board experience, and shared templates and tools to help you support the newest or even the savviest board members and make them feel better equipped to serve.
Video Lesson Description:
“How to Deal with Divisive Board Members” deals with the inevitable: Someday you’ll recruit one or more dysfunctional board members. They may even try to turn the rest of your board against you. Shalita shares some great tips on how to avoid this from happening and how to deal with these situations should they arise for you!
Your non-profit organization can’t afford to have a broken board. Listen to this interview with Professional Registered Parliamentarian Darlene Allen and Roberts Rules Made Simple creator and professional Speaker Susan Leahy. They talk about how to support your non-profit organizations to be more effective. Your meetings are your organization’s best TEAM-building tool. If you can stay mission-focused, you’ll be able to hold more effective and productive meetings.
Being on a nonprofit board can be one of life’s joys. You not only do good, but you’re leading the way to doing good.
While some people might say that 80 percent of success is showing up, that’s not true if you want to be an effective nonprofit board member. There’s more. Sure, you need to show up at board meetings – and more than 80 percent. You need to be prepared for those meetings by reading and understanding the materials before you get there. You need to take onboarding, orientation, and ongoing training seriously. You need to become a known advocate for your mission, give to your nonprofit, and encourage others to make their gifts.
But most important is that you need to ask questions – and understand the answers. You need to know what’s going on. The public looks to you as the steward of your mission and its money. The people your nonprofit serves deserve nothing less.
Ready to learn more? Check out the additional resources below!
- Major Gifts: Build Your Program and Earn More Donations. Your board will be heavily involved in securing major gifts for your nonprofit. Read this article to learn how to strengthen your program!
- Building a Fundraising Strategy: Resources and Ideas. Your board will oversee all of your fundraising activities. This article can give you fresh ideas for improving your strategy.
- 21 Free Nonprofit Webinars To Further Your Career Today. Looking for more great nonprofit learning resources? Check out this list of FREE resources.