What is the #1 action you can take NOW to ensure a high performing board?

Printer-friendly version

You can ensure a high performing board by taking time to orient and continually engage board members.

It’s time to rethink “board training,” starting with that unfortunate moniker. Instead of calling board education “training,” we’d do better to think in terms of how adults learn, and how receptive they are to new experiences. After all, someone who has previously served as a board member won’t think that s/he needs “training” (even though one board’s approach to governance and culture may be quite unlike another’s). We encourage those who work with nonprofit boards to consider leaving behind the concept of “training” altogether and focus instead on engagement with the organization’s mission, culture, and values. Also, consider what actually works when it comes to adult learning: activities that involve peer learning, and especially games, are known to help concepts “stick.” (Why adults need recess too; more about the six principles of adult learning.)

Let’s approach board education in a new light: Instead of thinking of board education as an unaffordable luxury, we hope more nonprofits make it an ongoing ‘must-do.’ How the board functions matters. Let’s make sure each one of our board members is engaged and being exposed to concepts useful for nonprofit leaders – from trends affecting operations, to ethical obligations and best practices in governance.

Fortunately, the past approach to board “training” seems to be shifting. Professionals who work at state associations of nonprofits, such as Nancy Bacon, Director of Learning at Washington Nonprofits, are committed to helping nonprofits support healthy boards of directors, and also to making sure that volunteer boards are prepared to lead organizations into a sustainable future. New modes of delivering fundamental information to board members are emerging.

Take financial literacy: It’s often a challenge to find nonprofit board members who are fully confident in reading financial reports, let alone guarding a nonprofit against fraud, or guiding a nonprofit through the independent audit process. So, helping them develop the competencies needed to confidently navigate an independent audit and draw the narrative out of financial statements sounds like it would require time and money. However, using a relatively inexpensive peer learning board game, developed by Washington Nonprofits, called “FUN” (Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits), board members in Washington State are enjoying interactive learning opportunities that work well for busy board members, while reinforcing both basic financial literacy and more advanced financial decision-making.

FUN represents a new approach to “training” board members. Information is presented in a game format with “lessons” converted into manageable “chunks” that are also designed for “anytime learning.” This approach to learning is far from a solo activity, and it’s not dependent on an instructor offering a lecture, aided by a Powerpoint presentation. Instead, similar to a “flipped classroom” approach, participants are watching videos for background, then rolling up their sleeves, learning by doing through structured peer-learning programs that take the emotions of the participants into account through clever program design. This approach – that Bacon calls, “Chunk, Flip, Guide, and Laugh” recognizes that financial topics make many people nervous, but the discomfort is defused through game playing. This interactive peer-learning approach can be applied to other topics. Bacon and Washington Nonprofits are at the forefront of designing future game-styled board education programs.

What innovative board education programs have you experienced? Let us know! And don’t forget to stay connected with your state association of nonprofits to learn about upcoming conference sessions and learning programs throughout the year that yield high-achieving board members.

Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits (FUN) is a free resource for nonprofits because of the support of Washington Nonprofits’ funders and other partners. Contact Washington Nonprofits for more information.


Find Your State Association of Nonprofits

Connect with local resources and expertise


Connect With Us

1. Sign up for updates

Stay up-to-date with the latest nonprofit resources and trends by subscribing to our free e-newsletters.

2. Follow us on social media