Guest Post – Mandate Orientation and Training for Nonprofit Board Members?
Guest Post By Jim Thalhuber
Seems like six months can’t pass without a Minnesota nonprofit organization making headlines for alleged mismanagement, misuse of funds or some other misdeed. In the past week alone, two Twin Cities nonprofits were the focus of multiple media headlines.
“Despite warnings, state kept cash flowing to controversial nonprofit” was the December 11 headline on the MPR News website. This followed a December 9 Star/Tribune headline reading “New details arise on Community Action spending.” The nonprofit connected to these headlines is Community Action of Minneapolis, an agency that provided heating assistance and other aid to low-income residents Both accompanying news stories detailed allegations of hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on celebrity cruises, alcohol, spa treatments for members of its board of directors and chief executive, and a personal loan for its chief executive.
“Audit skewers tech nonprofit” was the December 5 headline in the Star/Tribune, followed by “State to examine TIES finances” on December 6 and “TIES hired director’s relatives” on December 11. TIES is a technology organization funded by Twin Cities school districts. In the related stores, it was reported that the state of Minnesota will step in to examine its financial affairs after an audit revealed widespread spending irregularities and a lack of documentation, and that the Executive Director’s son and daughter were on the payroll, and a niece held her wedding reception at a TIES facility without being charged a fee.
Erosion of Public Confidence
After 40 years working in the nonprofit sector, these kinds of headlines no longer startle me. But they continue to exasperate me. Why? Because they erode public confidence in the nonprofit sector and, in turn, can lead to reduced support, funding and services for those in need.
Who is responsible? Ultimately, it’s the board of directors.
I have served on and been around the boards of directors of dozens of nonprofits, all with great missions, passionate staff and impressive programs. Many have solid programs for orienting and training their board members. But a good number of others do a lousy job of getting and keeping board members up to speed on their responsibilities – responsibilities that, if not understood and tended to, can lead to those ugly headlines.
What can be done? Leaving the task of board member orientation and training up to individual nonprofits themselves is not the answer (see headlines above). Too many are too ill-equipped and under-resourced to handle it.
Mandate Orientation and Training
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So how about mandating a consistent, statewide, quality program of orientation and training for board members? Before joining a nonprofit board, a candidate would attend a sanctioned training session and obtain a certificate of completion. Sitting board members would attend a specified number of continuing education sessions per year. You get the idea.
Mandated orientation and training for nonprofit board members isn’t a new idea; the concept has been tossed around from time-to-time, but it has yet to gain traction in this state.
If we’re looking for a model, what’s happening in charter schools might be instructive. I am told that ongoing training for charter school board members in the areas of governance, personnel and finance is required, as is a public oath of office. This sounds serious. Why not the same for nonprofits?
And the expertise and resources for orientation and training already exist. For example, just look at the Board Boot Camp offered by MAP for Nonprofits.
It would take a good deal of time and energy – along with some angel funding – to put in place and run such a program. But wouldn’t it be worth it if such a program could reduce the number of those nasty headlines?