Why We Created Boards in Gear

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Washington State has 58,000 nonprofits. More than 75% of them have budgets of $100,000 or less. So by rough estimates, 580,000 board members need training but many lack significant professional development funds to do so. And these nonprofits do our communities’ most important work; they feed the hungry, educate our children, care for our seniors, and protect our earth. Their success matters. Our challenge at Washington Nonprofits was, “How can we help busy board members learn what they need to know, so that their organizations can thrive?”

Nancy Bacon, Director of Learning, Washington NonprofitsWe pulled together a team that understands what nonprofit board members need to know, but also how people learn best, to design a process for busy board members to learn in a way that would be fun. While many educators create learning objectives, we created “action objectives” to keep our eye on objectives that would get boards to take action towards better practices. We called what we created, “Boards in Gear,” which is conveniently shortened to “BIG” reflecting the significant role nonprofit boards play in the success of an organization. Boards in Gear is a free online set of learning tools that includes short videos, supporting kit materials, and a game. It was created for busy volunteers who want to learn something in their free time, but it can also be used by groups, such as at a board retreat, by bringing in a facilitator to anchor the group discussion. Boards in Gear currently provides the foundation for a four-hour nonprofit board training experience that Washington Nonprofits is implementing across Washington State with the support of the Office of the Secretary of State.

For those capacity building and design thinking geeks interested in the details, Boards in Gear breaks down what board members need to know into five main buckets (because people learn better when information is grouped in similar “chunks”). Each bucket is supported by a video (to visually and orally reinforce the concepts) and a “kit” with resources compiled by content experts, but designed by communication experts, so the information flows in an optimal way to the brain’s learning receptors. From answering “why” board members volunteer at all, to “how” they fulfill their legal and fiduciary roles, the “training” gets to the root of what board members need to know, through thoughtfully designed methods that give the learning relevance and turn the experience into a learning journey not just for the volunteer board members, but also for their organizations. And because board members who laugh together learn together, we included a board game just for fun. As you roll the dice and take turns sharing information with the other players, board members learn about their roles in far different ways than through the typical agenda-driven conversations that take place in a board meeting.

Finally, knowing how important it is for nonprofits to evaluate program impact, monitor progress, and demonstrate results, we also wanted Boards in Gear to answer the question: “How do you know that your board has learned what it needs to learn?” So we created the Boards in Gear Pathway to help guide boards forward. It can be used as a pre-assessment to determine what the board most needs to learn, but also as a tracking tool to see how progress is being made over time.

The ultimate goal of Boards in Gear is to make sure that every nonprofit board of directors in Washington State has what it needs to succeed. We brought together what we know about boards, and what works in adult learning, to offer nonprofits a new way to bring learning into the life of their organizations.

Nancy Bacon is Director of Learning for Washington Nonprofits

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