Given the increased scrutiny voluntary
organizations find themselves facing these days, the issue of ongoing board
training / education has become a more frequent topic for calls to the Help 4
hardest question we have found boards facing when it comes to this issue is not
what the program should include, or even how to afford training, but the one we
call the "lead-the-horse-to-water" question. It sounds like this:
"My board does not think they need
training, and I know they are not doing what a board should do. How can we get
them the training they need, when they don't think they need it?"
week alone we received 2 almost identical lead-the-horse-to-water inquiries.
The juxtaposition of those two calls was stark:
One of the calls was from an Executive
Director. The other was from a Board Member.
One board was in one of the most
sophisticated cities in the world. That board was comprised of professionals
who were actively engaged with the organization.
The other group was in a small rural
community of less than 100,000 people, where the board assumed its role was to
approve whatever the director suggested and to otherwise stay out of the way.
are two boards from completely different parts of the globe, with completely
different missions, different levels of professional sophistication and
different attitudes about what it means to be a board, with calls coming from
different ends of the spectrum - from an ED and from a fellow board member. Yet
both have the same problem:
1) Neither board understands that its
role is dictated by the simple fact that the board is at the top of the
organizational chart. Neither board understands that that means ultimate
accountability for everything that happens within the organization. Neither
board understands what they are accountable for, whom they are accountable to,
nor how to "do" the job of being accountable. In other words, neither board understands what its
job must be.
2) In both cases, however, board
members have strongly held ideas of what being a board is all about, and in
both cases, those board members are entirely incorrect. In one case, the board
initiates exciting projects for its own board members to work on, paying little
to no attention to the activities that are at the heart of what the
organization is accountable for providing. In the other case, the board member
who called had been lured to the board with the promise that "There is hardly
any work, barely any meetings." Despite
those inaccurate perceptions, both boards believe they are doing exactly what
they are supposed to be doing.
3) The result for both boards is that
neither group thinks it needs training. They
simply do not know what they do not know.
cases, the people who called asked if we would provide a one-day training for
their board members. And in both cases, we said, "No." We know from our early
days in this work that when we are brought in as trainers for a board that does
not think it needs training, the short term result is bad attendance for the
training itself, and the long term result is - well - there is no long term
result! And so, many years ago, we stopped doing work for boards who are not
eager, excited, energized to learn to be incredible.
have focused on instead is exactly that - getting those boards eager, excited,
and energized to learn what it really means to govern for incredible results in
the community. By creating an ongoing education program to ensure your board
knows what it is accountable for, whom it is accountable to, and most
importantly, how to "do" accountability - your board will not only be leading
itself to the water, but taking that big drink on its own.
Strategies: Leading the
Horse to Want to Drink
following are strategies we have used with boards over the years, to get past
the resistance to the ongoing education that must be part of what it means to
be a board. All these approaches will accomplish the following:
1) These approaches are incremental,
bringing board members slowly along a continuum of ongoing learning, starting
with one narrow area at a time. These strategies all make the assumption that
while your board may not think it needs an overall board education program,
that board members are likely to agree there are at least one or two areas in
which they could improve. These strategies therefore begin at the beginning,
with those narrowly defined areas, learning by nibbles.
2) Moving onward from that narrowly
defined starting point, these strategies aim at creating the desire to learn
within the board itself, rather than having "training" foisted upon them. These
approaches are intended to entice your board to want to learn more, generating
curiosity and discussion.
3) All these approaches can work
without any outside assistance - they are intended to be tools your board can
use to create its own ongoing board education program.
cases, after using these approaches for a while, your board may feel it wants
an outsider to help facilitate additional discussion, or to provide insights
about a specific topic. That topic could be narrowly defined, or it could be as
broad as "What does it mean to be an accountable, Community-Driven board?"
time, however, you will notice something has changed - the suggestion to bring
in a trainer or facilitator will be coming from your board itself. The board
will have led itself to want to drink, and will have begun taking initial sips
on its own. And that is what these approaches are all about.
First, a Warning:
following are not quick fixes.
Because these approaches all focus on debunking the board's preconceived
notions about what it means to do its job, and further because these are all
intended to provide tools your board can use to begin its ongoing education
program on its own, none of these
approaches will work quickly.
most people know about effective education, the words "fast" and "learning" do
not typically go together. A hit-and-run board training will have far less
residual impact than the drip-drip-drip of gradual learning, allowing small
bits of information to sink in over time to actually change the way that person
thinks. And that is the intent of these strategies - to enhance not only your
board's overall knowledge, but to change your board's attitude about gaining
that knowledge. The first step in learning something new is to acknowledge that
we may not know what we think we know - to realize how much we really do have
to learn. To bring your board from complacent to curious about what it really
takes to govern and lead your organization is not something that will happen
said, here are some strategies to insert ongoing education into the culture of
Strategy #1: The Board Quiz
the most frequently referred pages at the Help 4 NonProfits site is our Board
Quiz. We have used this quiz, and similar quizzes, to begin discussions about
the need for education when we have worked with reluctant boards.
CLICK to Board Quiz
worked with a board whose members would tell anyone who would listen that this
was the best board in town. And while that board did, in fact, have many
prominent local personalities as board members, in truth it was one of the most
ineffective boards we have ever worked with!
therefore worked with the Executive Director to develop a quiz for the board,
using our Board Quiz as a baseline. In addition to the quiz questions you will
find at the link, we added specific questions for that organization. And as we
wrote the questions, we shook our heads, knowing how the board would
background, the board had approximately 25 board members. Its annual budget was
approximately $2 million, and there were 80 employees. While not a huge
organization, this was not a mom-and-pop operation by any means. Here are some
of the questions we added to our standard quiz:
What is the total budget for
the organization this fiscal year (within 25%)?
Name 3 programs the
Name 3 program managers, aside
from the Executive Director
Name the 3 largest sources of
funds for the organization
Virtually none of those board members
could answer any of the Quiz questions, including those basic
organization-specific questions. And some of those board members had been on
the board for over 10 years!
mere act of taking the quiz was a learning experience for this board. Grown
adults, many of them powerful community leaders, were suddenly acting like 4th
graders, trying to cheat off each other's papers. By the time they were done,
no one had to tell them what they didn't know - they figured it out pretty
quickly on their own.
they were ready to learn.
strategy, therefore, is to ask the Agenda Committee to add a 15 minute item at
your next board meeting, to have your board take the quiz, and to discuss the
results afterwards. Again, depending on your organization, you may want to add
some specific questions you believe the board should know, and fear they do not
the discussion that arises after board members have taken the quiz, ask the
do you want to learn?
there, you will have a jumpstart on creating your board's education program, as
you will have already addressed the most important question: What should we
learn about? More importantly, the answer to that question will have come from
the board itself.
next step is easy - decide to take 15 minutes at each of your upcoming board
meetings, to discuss one of those topics. The Board Accountability Committee
(the committee charged with ensuring the board has everything it needs to stay
consciously accountable) or the Governance Committee or the Board Development
Committee can be the ones in charge of finding information to share (more about
that below), or you can assign topics to those who are interested, to find
information to generate discussion at those 15 minute sessions.
key, however, is that the impetus for that learning will have come from the
Strategy #2: Approaching Board Orientation as Just
One Piece of Ongoing Board Education
board has an annual orientation, whether this session is intended just for new
board members or for the board as a whole, preparation for that session
provides another opportunity to springboard your board into an ongoing
education program. (Portions of the following suggestions come from our Board
Recruitment and Orientation manualCLICK
the word "orientation" suggests this is only for new board members. In fact,
every member of the board should go through that intensive training, every
year. The reason for this is twofold: First, every board member can use a
reminder course for issues that arise throughout the year. Second, though,
there are always new items that come up, that the whole board should be
Therefore, as you prepare for that
orientation program, include the whole board in determining, "What do we think
is important to know?"
a different approach than most boards are used to. And in truth, part of the
reason boards have become disengaged from ongoing learning is that they
typically delegate that learning to their employee - the Executive Director -
leaving it entirely to his/her discretion to determine what the board needs to
know to do the job. When the board is actively involved in determining the
contents of its own orientation program, you will find there is far more
interest from those board members about what they need to learn. And you will
further find there is far more interest in having all board members
Therefore, if the time for your annual
orientation is approaching, take 15 minutes at your next board meeting, and ask
board members to help develop the board's upcoming orientation program. Have
the board brainstorm answers to the following questions:
What do you wish you had known
when you started on the board, to help you make more informed
What information do you feel
you are lacking, even now?
addition, have the Executive Director answer:
What areas of the organization
do you feel the board doesnt understand well enough to make informed
this brainstormed list, 2 types of topics will arise. The first type will make
sense for the typical intensive 3 hour orientation many boards are used to.
Those topics might include a tour of the facility, or an overview of the
organization's programs, or whatever your board feels is logical for that
intensive few-hour session.
However, there will also be suggested
topics that might be better covered in small bits throughout the year. As an
example, ongoing financial education, to ensure all board members understand
the financial matters facing the organization, might be best understood in
small chunks. Rather than cramming those more complex topics into a single
orientation session, the board can plan to add 15 minutes or ½ hour to
each board meeting, to start your board's ongoing education program with topics
board members themselves have said they want to learn.
Strategy #3: Discussion of Articles About Being a
our subscribers have shared with us an approach they have used to generate
interest in creating an ongoing education program. And that is to use the
articles in the Help 4 NonProfits Library as a first step in that process. Like
the Board Quiz, these enterprising individuals printed out an article, asked
for 15 minutes on the agenda, and asked the board to read the article and talk
board is not inclined to even brainstorm about what they want to know by using
either Strategy #1 or #2, this approach may be a good one for your board to
take. Review the articles in the library, and choose one that is directly
related to the issues your board is facing. Take 15 minutes at your next board
meeting, to read and discuss that article.
CLICK to the Help 4 NonProfits Library
the articles we have been told have been helpful in this area are
Governing for What
Why Boards Micromanage (and How
to Get Them to Stop)
Boards and Financial Knowledge
(The Dirty Secret of NonProfit Boards)
Ten Stop Signs on the Road to
Board Recruitment (this article alone could keep your board's discussions
lively for a whole year!)
been surprised at the number of board members and executive directors who have
told us they send one of our articles to the board each month, as part of the
agenda materials to be read prior to that meeting. Then they make sure the
agenda includes 15-20 minutes to talk about that article and how it might apply
to their situation: What might we do differently because of what we have read
this is a non-threatening way to insert ongoing education at each of your
board's meetings. From those discussions, it will become apparent what areas
your board needs work on, whether that is overall "What is a board?" or some
more narrowly-defined topics.
making board education part of every meeting, you are simultaneously teaching
what the board needs to know and strengthening the culture of the board. This
is a great approach, therefore, not just for starting out, but for ongoing use
all the time!
will find additional resources for generating discussion at the Resource Page
for this article.
Strategy #4: Audio Classes
your board has determined what it wants to learn, and once board members have
been discussing issues related to what it means to be a board, another piece
that can give that education some punch is the use of recorded classes. These
classes might be anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours in length. Board members
can listen together as a group, or as individuals, listening on their own and
bringing discussion back to the next board meeting.
recommend, if possible, that board members listen together, discussing as they
go, and learning at their own pace. Simply by hitting the "stop" and "start"
buttons, discussion can happen as thoughts arise. Obviously if that is not
possible, having board members listen on their own is the next best thing, as
long as discussion occurs at the next board meeting.
Resources for recorded classes to be
used for this purpose are available at the Resource Page for this article.
approach to ongoing learning is an adjunct to the other strategies suggested
above. For a board just putting its toes in the water of ongoing education, a
recorded class may be a great first step, to jump start the board's thinking.
After the class, the board might entertain a discussion of, "What else do we
need to know?" as suggested in some of the other strategies.
other hand, this approach may be too advanced for some boards who are at the
very beginning stages of board education. Knowing your board, you will know
which approaches will work best.
training and ongoing education does not have to be costly. And for the board
who doesn't think it needs training, those costly approaches become just one
more reason not to get the ongoing education they need. These first steps
towards creating a spirit of ongoing learning at your organization will be a
great start for putting your board on the right path.
days, with the increased scrutiny towards the voluntary sector from governments
around the world, many boards are heading into board education out of fear. And
it is true that the board who does not know what it doesn't know is indeed
walking in a minefield. That is because your board is accountable, whether
board members are acting accountably or not - the buck stops with the board. If
your board does not understand that, or only vaguely understands it, that
minefield is just waiting for someone to make the wrong step.
fear of that minefield is not the best reason to add those 15 minutes to your
meetings. The best reason is that you will soon find those are the most
energizing 15 minutes of your whole meeting - the part of the meeting folks are
still talking about, long after the meeting is over. The discussions that arise
will be about the most critical parts of your mission, the most critical parts
of what it means to be a board. And while it sounds like one of those "work
from home" spam messages, this one is true: Just 15 minutes per month can set
your board on the road to being amazing.
they say in the commercials, "You've got nothing to lose, and so much to gain -