Educating and developing board members can be a challenge for even the most well-intentioned foundations. Board members’ time and energy can be limited. Longstanding board members can grow increasingly comfortable in their roles and with their colleagues. Grantmaking decisions and general business can easily fill agendas.
And yet, we know from our foundation members that ongoing learning is powerful and critical—not only to stay abreast of trends or benchmark foundation practices, but to fuel the engagement and passion that drive foundations toward impact.
Member foundations use many strategies for learning, including site visits, collaborations with other funders, attending conferences, inviting speakers, and more.
Here are additional ways to help your board access ongoing information and inspiration.
Think beyond board orientation
It’s good practice to have a process for orienting new board members to the foundation and their roles, from mission, vision, and culture to financial and legal duties.
And don’t stop there. Be sure to create opportunities for open conversation and learning on a regular basis, even after orientation ends. Mary McFadden, trustee of the Stifler Family Foundation, recommends a board buddy program—pairing new board members with experienced ones—as a great way to encourage questioning and ongoing learning. You also might set aside time for learning at each board meeting or retreat, or make it an expectation that board members dedicate a certain amount of time each year to learning.
Leverage the board’s interests and expertise
Learning and motivation can go hand in hand. What are you and your fellow board members curious about? What ideas or strategies raise the energy in the board room? Use these interests as entry points for ongoing learning.
Along the same lines, what expertise, perspectives, or experiences can each board member offer? What might each share to benefit the full group?
Enlist a board member to facilitate board education and development
Who on your board has responsibility for advancing the knowledge and skills of the full board? This individual (board chair or another member) may choose to meet one-on-one with board members to explore their interests, discuss challenges, or offer support in getting the information they need to excel in their roles. They may also choose to request time on meeting agendas for learning as a full group.
Keep in mind: Each board member is ultimately responsible for his or her education and development. Speak up if you’re not receiving the training, information, or support you need, even if to say you are unsure exactly what you need.
Seize small or large opportunities for learning
“I make our board aware of opportunities when I’m attending an event,” says Amy Goodwin, president and CEO of The Johnson Foundation. “Family dynamics are a big thing, so you don’t want to push too hard, but I always offer opportunities to them.”
“I’m fairly subtle in approaching development and education,” says Dawn Franks, executive director of the Ben and Maytee Fisch Foundation and advisor for family foundations. “Foundations are only meeting three or four times a year if you are lucky, so your window for training opportunities can be very small. Even being aware of where it is on the agenda can be so important. One foundation had 30–40 grants requests to discuss. If I put learning matters after the grant process, it was much more difficult to get engagement. Everyone was worn out. As non-family members, we sometimes underestimate the amount of energy that goes into the decision-making process, especially when there are divergent opinions.”
Unlock the power of cross-pollination
The ideas you encounter and experiences you have in other walks of life can make a remarkable impact on your role as a foundation board member. Don’t hesitate to bring them into the board room.
Soon after joining her family’s foundation board, Goodwin helped start two other nonprofits, including a local foundation called People’s Liberty.
“The other foundation is huge in comparison to us [in asset size]. I’ve learned quite a bit through internal mentorship with their CEO and staff. When I first started out, they literally took me under their wing by giving me a desk at their office. Bringing those experiences and the People’s Liberty experience back to the foundation, it’s made me far more effective. Had it not been for a lot of these trainings and development opportunities, I don’t think I would have realized that I could leverage traditional grantmaking to do other unique projects.”
“I find being on different types of boards helps me,” echoes McFadden. “I am on the board of the Land Trust Alliance and a local land trust in Wareham, MA, that recently was accredited by the Alliance. It was a good process for getting our policies and records up to snuff. I learned about IRS requirements, 990 information…Then I thought, maybe we should be doing this at the foundation as well. I find that I increasingly bring what I learn in one area into another.”
Program Manager Stephen Alexander designs sessions for our educational programs and creates content. Before coming to Exponent Philanthropy, Stephen worked with Thomson Reuters, Jones Lang LaSalle, and two small nonprofits in Washington, DC. He currently serves on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s DC chapter.