Crain's: Nonprofits can do better at training new board members
October 19 2017

Lisa Bertagnoli
Crain’s Chicago Business

Most nonprofits and associations could do a better job bringing on new board members, according to research by Heidrick & Struggles and the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

Only 45 percent of board members nationally said their organization effectively prepared them for board service, and only 53 percent said the organization they joined had a defined onboarding process. Additionally, 51 percent were left in the dark as to the organization’s culture, and 40 percent didn’t get an explanation of how the organization was staffed. Overall, only 46 percent of respondents said the onboarding experience prepared them to be effective board members.

It’s a big deal, for a few reasons.

Onboarding needs to be more efficient, as 64 percent of survey respondents say they spend more time—an average of 172 hours annually, or more than a month of work weeks—on board service than in years past.

Another reason: Inefficient onboarding can hurt nonprofits, especially when new board members are unaware of their financial responsibility. “The organization can fall into a crisis of reputation,” says K. Sujata, CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women, adding that nonprofits with ill-prepared boards can also suffer “mission creep,” or a dilution of their original focus.

Responsibility for successful onboarding lies with both nonprofits and new board members: “Organizations shouldn’t just leave it to the board member, and board members should have an understanding of what they’re getting into,” Sujata says.

To help train prospective board members for service, Chicago Foundation for Women hosts a twice-yearly, two-day board bootcamp. The camp, scheduled for Oct. 28 and Nov. 4 this year, covers governance, fiduciary responsibility and fundraising, and also has a networking event at which nonprofits can meet with prospective board members. Since its inception six years ago, the camp has had 260 participants, 60 percent of whom have joined a nonprofit board.

Ariel Thomas attended the camp last spring, and in June joined the board of Ever Thrive, a Chicago social-services nonprofit. “It definitely gave me a foundation in terms of the responsibilities of a board member,” says Thomas, 33, data coordinator at the Metropolitan Breast Cancer Task Force in Chicago, a Chicago Foundation for Women grantee. Thomas says the instruction on nonprofit finances was particularly helpful.

The foundation started the camp, which costs $200, after grantees said it was difficult to recruit board members and stress to them that boards bear financial responsibility for a nonprofit. “There aren’t a lot of affordable training programs for board members,” says Eli Marsh, philanthropic education officer at the foundation. Next year, the foundation plans to pilot a program to provide fundraising instruction to board chairs at its grantee organizations.

 

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