Nonprofit Board Training: The Ultimate Guide [& Resources]

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?

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.

1. Board Governance Best Practices for Nonprofits

Course Description:

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.

2. Nonprofit Committee Magic – How to Improve Board Structure

Webinar Description:

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

3. How To Be An Awesome Nonprofit Board Member

Webinar Description:

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.

4. How to Deal with Divisive Board Members

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!

5. Be a Non-Profit Board That Works

Video Description:

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.

Wrapping Up

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!

Preparing Your Board Members for Action at Your Nonprofit

When it comes to joining a nonprofit board, there’s usually a pretty steep learning curve. Every organization has its own quirks and operational processes, so even if a new board member has previous experience serving other nonprofits, they’ve never served your nonprofit.

Without guidance and ample training, new board members may struggle through the adjustment period, or worse, they may never find their footing and wind up leaving before the conclusion of their terms.

A new year gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate your board experience and ensure you’re taking every step necessary to set members up for success from the start. Whether your training is formal or more relaxed, it should provide everything new board members need to know to effectively serve your organization.

Comprehensive training sets a positive tone for a member’s term and enables them to become engaged in their work right away. Not to mention, this contributes significantly to your board’s professional development as a whole. It ensures everyone is on the same page so that members can collaborate toward achieving goals and making strategic progress rather than slow down organizational growth.

To help you start their terms off on the right foot and encourage continuous development, we’ll review a handful of training best practices that your nonprofit can easily implement, including:

  1. Review board member responsibilities.
  2. Share helpful documentation.
  3. Offer insightful training courses.

Your board members are the true changemakers at your organization. Ready to set them up for successful terms with exceptional training? Let’s dive in!

1. Review board member responsibilities.

You can’t expect board members to live up to expectations if they don’t even know what those expectations are. Starting preparation off on the right foot means thoroughly reviewing responsibilities, both for general board members and for specific leadership roles. Typically, this is done as part of the onboarding process, but you should also review duties on an annual basis with returning members.

According to Boardable’s guide to board member responsibilities, there are several core responsibilities that any nonprofit board member should fulfill. A few common duties include coming prepared to meetings, offering their skills to advance the organization’s mission, and recruiting standout members. While there are countless others, all responsibilities are typically divided into three categories across many nonprofit boards:

The core duties of nonprofit board members are care, loyalty, and obedience.

  1. Duty of Care: Members should be committed to fulfilling their roles and assisting the organization to the best of their abilities. In other words, they should actively participate, practice open communication, follow through on assignments, and support program initiatives.
  2. Duty of Loyalty: This responsibility means that all activities and decisions should be completed in the best interest of the organization, not the individual board member. Those who exemplify this duty fully embrace your mission.
  3. Duty of Obedience: While board members should do everything in their power to drive the organization’s mission forward, they still must follow your organization’s guidelines. These guidelines are found in your governance documents, and a board that strays from these rules can steer your organization in the wrong direction.

While each board member is expected to adhere to these duties, leadership holds a higher level of responsibility. For instance, on top of the core expectations listed above, the chairperson oversees board meetings, helps appoint committee members, and makes high-level strategic decisions with the board that align with the nonprofit’s mission. As another example, the secretary schedules meetings, records and distributes meeting minutes, and assures that all documents are filed and accessible.

In addition to these duties, members will have individual roles that depend on your organization’s unique needs. By clearly stating who’s responsible for what, each of your board members can take the steps necessary to lead your organization toward a sustainable future.

2. Share helpful documentation.

As part of the onboarding process, board leadership should provide sufficient resources to catch everyone up on the organization’s history, processes, and mission. Not to mention, sharing the proper resources can help more experienced members fulfill their tasks as well. 

When bringing on new board members, consider putting together a welcome packet complete with helpful documents. Documents are always part of an effective training experience, and a welcome packet will ensure they receive these in an organized fashion that doesn’t overwhelm them.

According to this guide to welcoming new board members, there are several documents you should share during onboarding, including:

These are key elements to include in your welcome packets for nonprofit board members.

  • History one-pager: This covers your organization’s history and mission in-depth. It provides context and helps them fully understand your work.
  • Roles and responsibilities: This reviews what duties are assigned to which roles. Including this enables members to quickly revisit expectations at any point.
  • Organization bylaws: A copy of your bylaws helps members understand the decision-making hierarchy and what they can (and can’t) do.
  • Financial data: Include financial data such as your annual budget and any recent financial audit results. Knowing where your organization stands financially can inform members’ decisions and is a crucial responsibility of the board.
  • List of current leadership and board members: This page should include a brief bio, a photo, and contact information for leadership and current board members.
  • A calendar: This lists any upcoming board meetings and events. Sharing this upfront allows members to mark their calendars and adjust their schedules accordingly.
  • A list of committees and their charges: This names each committee and its correlated responsibilities. Be sure to also include committee members’ names.

Pro tip: A board portal with document sharing capabilities will allow you to consolidate all essential documents into one convenient location. That way, your team doesn’t have to deal with reams of paper that just take up space or keep track of multiple email attachments.

3. Offer insightful training courses.

One of the best parts of nonprofit boards is inclusivity. Anyone can volunteer to serve so long as they have a passion for the cause, but this doesn’t mean these individuals always have the skills to fulfill expectations. To be resilient and effective leaders, board members must invest time in improving their abilities and growing their knowledge of effective governance. That’s where training courses come in.

Training courses—particularly those that are online—are a convenient way for new members to get up and running and for veteran members to continue advancing their skills. 

As covered in DonorSearch’s virtual training resources guide, virtual training courses were popular long before the shift to working from home due to their many advantages. While in-person training is certainly engaging, it can be extremely inconvenient and inaccessible. Compared to face-to-face training, online courses tend to be low-cost or free, so you don’t have to worry about purchasing physical resources either.

Professionally-developed online courses tend to be high-quality and offer a high level of education and training, which is a vital part of any board’s development. Making use of these courses can help members become true assets to your mission. Not to mention, offering such opportunities can contribute tremendously to board engagement.

Whether board members need help mastering governance practices or your executive director wants to strengthen teamwork, there are plenty of training opportunities available.

For inspiration, check out this Nonprofit.Courses page that presents specific content aimed at training board members at any nonprofit, from grassroots organizations to international NGOs. These courses are created by professionals in the field, which means you can easily provide an enriching experience with specialized expertise.

Your nonprofit expects so much from its board members. In turn, you need to thoughtfully prepare them for the hard work ahead of them, and that starts the moment they walk into the boardroom for the first time. Investing time and resources into training your board members is a key component of growth.

Whether your board is full of returning members or brand new faces, you’re never past the need for training. By sufficiently preparing these individuals, you’ll empower board members to effectively complete their tasks and overcome any obstacles thrown their way. In turn, they’ll be well-equipped to serve as committed ambassadors and advocate for your mission for years to come.

This was a guest post contributed by Boardable.This was a guest post contributed by Jebb Banner of Boardable.

Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Bullies in Board Leadership

Bullies in Board Leadership

by Priscilla Rosenwald

Like most groups, a nonprofit Board of Directors is subject to being dominated by an internal bully. We have worked with several boards dominated by bullies, who did not act in the best interests of the organization. Actually, nonprofit Boards are more at risk of bully dominance than other groups, because the only compensation for serving is psychological. For most board members, the psychological reward is the consciousness of doing good in good company—but for some, satisfaction can only flow from being utterly and completely in charge.

The bully turns a nonprofit Board into a corporation of one, and deprives the chief executive and the nonprofit organization of everyone else’s expertise and skills.
Does your organization believe in Board entitlement more than you believe in your mission?

Do you allow poison gossip, personal attacks, and relational aggression to take priority over your mission? You may erroneously tolerate the Board bully when:

 They need to always be right.

 They dominate the conversation.

 They may talk over other people.

 They get angry and aggressively assert their opinions.

 They mock people who don’t agree.

What this means is that you’re sacrificing your mission in order to grant a special personal indulgence to a few people, sometimes only one person, who, in the final touch of irony – no one even likes or respects!

 If you have a strong Board culture based on mission discipline, then firing a Board member who is out of alignment is not surprising or shocking. It becomes a matter of fact.

 You don’t want a Board that marches in lock step with no one questioning anything. You want a Board that engages in vigorous debate. You want people who will think deeply and who will take the time to work through decisions with care.

 Then when the Board makes a decision based on mission, all the members get on the team and go with the plan, rather than sabotaging or sniping or doing anything that drags down the morale and effectiveness of the Board.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not Nonprofit.Courses, HuggDotNet, LLC nor its employees or affiliates. Unless otherwise stated, they are informational in nature and equivalent to advice from a friend, and not professional counsel or advice. You are responsible for any consequences from using any of the information presented. While we make attempts to verify the accuracy and unique origin of the content, there may be errors, omissions, and mistakes. For more, please see our Terms and Conditions.


Asleep at the Helm

Asleep at the Helm

by Priscilla Rosenwald

We spoke of a Perfect Storm for a leadership crisis, as many boards ignore the discussion of succession planning for fear of rocking the boat.  Now we are finding that board chairs of high profile organizations with long-term leaders avoid serious oversight and succession planning.  Often the long-term or founding leader has not been receptive to board oversight and has been steering the ship without involving their board in critical strategic, financial or capacity decisions.

Imagine the board’s surprise when the organization hits stormy weather or the leader exits dramatically.  What a surprise that these boards subsequently

discover financial mismanagement, and the ravages of autocratic leadership including poor morale and ailing programs/services. The board then navigates with all hands on deck, and frantically seeks a turn-around skipper.

Oh, if only wishful thinking were replaced by strategic governance.

How about:

  • integrating strategic and succession planning to ensure organizational sustainability
  • establishing leadership development throughout the management team
  • creating simple, straight-forward financials to encourage oversight
  • board chairs and chief executives in a partnership that allows for fierce conversation

 If rocky waters and uncertain terrain make you seasick, then board governance may not be your calling. Board leadership requires strategic thinking, capable navigation and the ability to take the helm in stormy seas and manage gruff, egotistical captains.


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not Nonprofit.Courses, HuggDotNet, LLC nor its employees or affiliates. Unless otherwise stated, they are informational in nature and equivalent to advice from a friend, and not professional counsel or advice. You are responsible for any consequences from using any of the information presented. While we make attempts to verify the accuracy and unique origin of the content, there may be errors, omissions, and mistakes. For more, please see our Terms and Conditions.