Take Your Nonprofit Board Training To The Next Level 

New board members typically receive some level of orientation when they step into their role. A more experienced member or agency leader will tell them about their fiduciary responsibilities, the Duties of Care, Loyalty and Obedience, and give them a list of meeting dates, important events, etc.

They also receive a copy of the bylaws, the organization’s strategic plan, and budget. So far, so good. Yet, even with all of this preparation, this is not nearly enough for a board to operate smoothly, let alone successfully.

There are other responsibilities new directors have that boards rarely mention during orientation. While not legally required, informing new board members of these responsibilities can go a long way in making board service much more effective.

 I suggest you embed these unwritten rules into your nonprofit board training, board culture, and practice. The results you receive will not disappoint.

23 Unwritten Rules For Nonprofit Board Training

  1. Directors should always be looking for and recruiting new board candidates that can help your agency accomplish its strategic plan. Which skills, experiences, relationships, and competencies would benefit your agency and who in your network has them?
  2. The board has only one employee – the Executive Director- so it should never try to manage the staff or volunteers. 
  3. The board should never micro-manage the Executive Director, but instead hold him/her accountable for results.
  4. Demonstrate moral courage by always speaking the truth, even if it may prove unpopular or you face oppositions. Same goes for bringing up taboo subjects that no one seems to want to discuss, like ED succession planning, violations of established policies, or when “something just doesn’t smell right.”
  5. Directors need to become knowledgeable and conversant in the agency’s purpose, operations, and any important issues it currently faces.
  6. The board should assign experienced directors to new ones as mentors.
  7. Directors should be willing to open their Rolodex and provide skills to help the agency when specific needs arise.
  8. Directors should willingly serve on at least one committee.
  9. Each director must have a clear understanding of expectations before joining a board: time, financial support, event participation, meetings, and possible use of professional skills (like CPA, attorney, marketing/communications specialist, etc).
  10. Directors should read and be prepared to discuss the board meeting materials that are sent out in advance of  meetings.
  11. Directors should willingly undergo an annual review by the board chair and ED.
  12. All directors should participate annually in a board review or assessment.
  13. Directors should periodically accompany staff members when they make donor and foundation visits.
  14. Directors should have a clear understanding of what the agency expects them to donate to the cause, both in terms of time and treasure.
  15. No one should ever participate in after-meeting meetings. They only harm the agency and the relationships. We should say what needs to be said at the meetings and then let it go.
  16. Directors should serve as a regular or periodic volunteer in some capacity at the agency.
  17. At meetings, directors should always keep their attention and focus on the issues at hand and never personally attack anyone.
  18. Directors succeed when they realize that influential power is more effective than positional power at a nonprofit agency.
  19. Once the board votes on an issue and makes a decision, directors must move on and not dwell on the past, sulk, or try to reopen the issue at a later meeting.
  20. Directors should avoid taking hard and fast positions on issues.  It is wise to show a willingness to listen and compromise since the board may not know all of the information yet. 
  21. Directors should not fear looking dumb or uninformed by asking clarifying questions when an issue is unclear.
  22. Each director should show up to meetings early. They definitely should not arrive two minutes before a board or committee meeting is called to order. Nor should they leave immediately after the meeting has been adjourned.
  23. Because of the key role volunteers play, directors should always take time to thank them, both formally and informally. Almost everything your agency does and its reputation rests, in large measure, on how well they do their job. They are serving only because they want to, so the agency should thank and appreciate them.

Again, you won’t see these “rules” in any governance handbook, but they are powerful. If you use them, your nonprofit board training will prepare your team for any obstacle. While a few of these may seem a little cumbersome, most of these unwritten rules are simple and easy to follow. And, they pay off in multiples of what it costs directors in time and effort to follow them.

Do you agree with these? Did I miss any? What would you add to this list?


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