The Case for Training Staff on Governance

Your next board members likely aren't on your staff. But you might still benefit from training them in board work.

Board work is time-consuming, intellectually demanding, and often rife with interpersonal conflict. So why aren’t you encouraging your best employees to get involved in it?

OK; describe governance that way and the question answers itself. But more seriously, there’s an argument that encouraging your top employees to play leadership roles can benefit not only the organizations they end up serving, but yours as well. That’s the story Credit Suisse staffers Lalita Advani and Julia Chu tell in the latest issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. About five years ago the investment bank’s foundation arm launched its Nonprofit Board Training Program, which is designed to train senior and mid-level managers on the ins and outs of board work.

Decision-making on a nonprofit board requires building consensus, a very different skill from influencing someone who reports to you.

The program, they explain, moves beyond straightforward volunteering opportunities to cover the governance basics: “fiduciary oversight, conflicts of interest, and nonprofit financial literacy, as well as the importance of strategic planning.” But its organizers understood that staffers at different levels have different levels of sophistication on these matters and scaled the program accordingly: “One part of the program would target senior employees, and the other would serve mid-level employees. Recognizing the different skills, motivations, and financial giving potential of these two groups, we believed, was essential to the success of the program overall.”

You may have noticed that you yourself are not at Credit Suisse. Given that, it’s likely you don’t have deep resources to implement such a program. But one valuable takeaway from the article is that the program doesn’t just create board members for other organizations; it strengthens the employer’s staff base as well. Advani and Chu report on people who find that they’re better equipped to apply strategic thinking skills to their jobs that they hadn’t had before.

And that’s ultimately something you want in your own shop. Geri Stengel, writing about similar efforts for Forbes in 2012, points out: “Decision-making on a nonprofit board requires building consensus, a very different skill from influencing someone who reports to you. Learning how to work within a group of equals is particularly useful when the time comes … to form alliances and partnership.”

Which is to say that these efforts are more than just corporate do-gooderdom. Indeed, associations might stand to reap greater benefits from such a program, because their work is driven so heavily by board decisions. There’s no guarantee that employees who understand strategic planning will be better employees. But it may serve to reduce any confusion on staff about the reasoning behind their work—and if it gives them an opportunity to learn how to serve causes and organizations they’re passionate about, all the better.

This isn’t a hard idea for organizations to get behind when it comes to grooming potential members for their own boards: The National Ground Water Association, for instance, hosts training sessions for potential board members well ahead of the nomination process that not only explain what board work involves but debunk a lot of myths about what people think it involves. Even if staff isn’t where you’ll be looking for board members, educating them on how the organization runs can be a low-expense education effort.

But the human connection such an effort may provide shouldn’t be overlooked. Last week, Anna Caraveli wrote about one of the more powerful sessions she attended at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Orlando, Florida. At the conference’s Ignite session, she witnessed presentations that highlighted the personal experiences of the professional community, which prompted a question from her: “Why do most of us feel that we have to remove our own ‘personhood’ in professional dealings?” Ignoring that personhood, she points out, has business impact: She describes the experience of working with one organization that struggled with personal interaction to the point where “attrition was mounting and members were mostly unengaged.”

Providing staffers with an opportunity to learn more about the mechanism behind your association doesn’t automatically seem like the path to bolstering their personhood. But if it gives them the ability to serve organizations they’re passionate about and better connect with the work they do in the office, it can be a meaningful step.

What does your organization do educate your staffers about your board structure, or train them for governance work? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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