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Create the Talent You Need

Nonprofit boards always have good intentions.  However, many times their decisions fail to deliver the intended results.  It is simply because they lack the knowledge and experience necessary to be as effective as they would like to be.  Sometimes board members tell us the decision would have been better if they had been given better information.  Through experience, they learn to ask for the information they need.  This implies they need your help gaining experience and accelerating their learning.

Small, and especially young, nonprofits are where inexperienced board members often gain experience.  Those board members are also early in their professional careers, which adds to their lack of experience.  The inexperienced board members will benefit from coaching and mentoring. However, it is hard for a board of inexperienced individuals to provide coaching and mentoring to others.  The solution is to find willing board members from older, successful, and well-established nonprofits to provide coaching and mentoring.  The advantage for the mentoring nonprofit is that it will be creating well-trained and experienced prospects for its own board. Over time, the smaller nonprofit will grow and find it easier to retain members.  Then they can begin coaching and mentoring their own prospects.

The second problem is knowledge.  Nonprofits are very good at recruiting board members with a genuine passion for the mission and cause.  However, some passionate candidates lack the knowledge to be the right person for the job.  There are two solutions.  The first is to bypass those without sufficient knowledge.  The second is to provide the knowledge that will lead to success for the individual and your nonprofit.  Of course, this assumes you have developed a way to assess a candidate’s knowledge rather than assuming the candidate has the knowledge you need.

It is important to remember that every member needs broad knowledge and specialized knowledge.  For instance, members of the finance committee should have a deep understanding of finance and accounting.  However, every board member must be financially literate.  The financial and accounting skills are necessary to formulate a budget, create a cash plan, audit the work of the CFO or accounting function, and evaluate financial instruments (leases, loan documents, etc.).  Each board member must be financially literate so that he or she can participate in the decision-making process, understand options, and cast a wise and informed vote as well as know what information to ask for to inform his or her vote.

Without a knowledge-assessment process, it is easy to have board members who are willing but unprepared to carry out their duties.  As an example, many boards assume their members are financially literate.  However, a global study determined that only 57% of Americans are financially literate.  The survey results suggests that raising the financial literacy of a nonprofit’s board could have a significant impact on the quality of the board’s financial decisions and the nonprofit’s long-term sustainability.  Functional knowledge in other critical areas could further raise the performance of nonprofit boards.

As you can see, it is important to have a structured and intentional process for determining a candidate’s preparedness for board membership.  It is unnecessary to have a complex test to determine the knowledge of prospective or current board members.  A few carefully chosen, simple questions can reveal a person’s working knowledge in critical areas. Background and formal education are good indicators.  Once you understand the candidate’s preparedness for membership, you can determine what it will take to fill the gaps.

Next Step:

Create an intentional, structured yet informal process for assessing each board member and candidate’s readiness to serve

Determine what experience and knowledge are critical in each candidate to create the right mix on your board

Task your board development committee with developing a process for enabling board members to become the knowledgeable and experienced members you need

Board development committees have an important role to play regardless of the size or age of the nonprofit.  A small nonprofit’s board development committee can fulfill its role by finding coaches and mentors for its members as well as suggesting books, classes, and articles.  The other nonprofits can provide their board members with the training the members need.  All nonprofits can create an apprentice program for their board members.

While there is a temptation to ask your executive to train board members, this should be avoided.  Your executive probably has the knowledge and experience to do the necessary training but he or she has a full time job running your nonprofit.  In addition, it is important to remember that boards should be self-managing.  Your executive can provide valuable input about the training needed and the assessment process but the board should be responsible for its own development.

Take It Further:

Determine which indicators are appropriate for assessing the performance of your board and each board member (based upon the member’s role)

Review the board’s performance annually and determine what skills and experience are important to improving next year’s performance

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