Every board member from a small organization I’ve ever met thinks they know what a board does.

And yet I’m constantly catching them writing press releases, asking to balance the accounts, sticking their noses into the marketing calendar, and trying to override artistic decisions.

And then refusing to buy a table at the Gala.

Simply put, the board of directors is a group of persons elected by the shareholders of a corporation to govern and manage the affairs of the company. As a not-for-profit, you have no shareholders, but if you’ve got members, they are probably authorized through the by-laws to elect your board. Generally in a case like this, the Executive Committee will slate panels to be voted on; it takes a concerted effort of the membership to override the Executive Committee’s nominees.

If you’re not a membership organization, your board is self-selecting and self governing (don’t get me started. The nfp model is a mess and complaining about it is above my pay grade).

People are generally very flattered about being invited onto a board, and then are stunned when they are required to attend meetings, educate themselves about the organization’s issue, understand financial statements, attend events, make donations, and dun their friends and colleagues for gifts.  And I will tell you that no amount of the Executive Director nagging, haranguing, begging, crying, screaming, stomping her little feet and threatening to hold her breath until she turns blue will get through to them.

The answer is board training, and every major city in the country has an organization that does this (in Chicago there are several– The Arts and Business Council, the Executive Service Corps, several private consulting firms and others). If it costs money, spend it. If it requires dedicated funding, find it. Make attendance at board training seminars a requirement of joining the board. Bring in someone to do board training to every board retreat. Require your board members to do a minimum number of hours (say 3–one afternoon per year) in continuing education on board membership, your issue, nfp best practices, etc., at their expense.

What your board members will get out of continuing ed is affirmation, a professional network centered around your organization and your issue, usable skills for their specific role as board members, and, importantly, a place to air grievances and find out if they hold water.

I’m a huge believer in continuing education. I think every profession should require it. I think it should be part of every volunteer effort.  The board that commits to training and continuing education reaps the benefits in fewer cat fights, better understanding of how your organization works (and needs to work), buy-in to the nonprofit model, and, yes, increased donations.

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