3 Key Skills to Focus on When Training New Board Members

So, you’re bringing on new board members. Congratulations! How are you going to train them?

It’s understandable if that question made you nervous. After all, board members carry a huge responsibility within your organization, and therefore, new members need to learn a ton of information as quickly as possible.

Don’t stress about this. Custom-developed e-learning courses are a great tool to facilitate new board member training. E-learning courses are scalable to train many members over time, can be custom-created to meet your exact needs, and their completion can be tracked to understand how new members are navigating through the onboarding process.

But, don’t just take our word for it. Let’s walk through three skills that new board members need to learn to be successful in their roles and how you can create effective e-learning to train them.

Skill 1: Basic Functions of Their Role

Take a moment to visualize the members of your board. Ideally, some of them have past experience working directly within a nonprofit—whether in a leadership position or as a volunteer. However, we’d guess that your board looks a little more like this:

  • George, the hobby philanthropist with strong connections to prospective major donors.
  • Susan, the high-powered CEO with leadership prowess but little nonprofit experience.
  • Thao, the elected official who’s well-connected and passionate about your cause.

Each of these board members brings a unique perspective to the table… but, it’s not necessarily a perspective that prepares them for the challenges of guiding a nonprofit organization. And, if they do have experience working with nonprofits, that experience may not be in a board member capacity—which is significantly different than volunteering a few weekends per month.

Board members have specific responsibilities that new members need to learn early in the onboarding process. These include:

  • Advancing the mission of your organization. Board members need to enthusiastically and proactively promote the efforts of your organization. This includes promotion within their personal and professional networks, and to the greater public (we’re looking at you, Thao-the-local-government-official).
  • Fulfilling legal and fiduciary responsibilities. Board members are responsible for understanding the local, state, and federal laws that apply to your nonprofit and maintaining compliance. This includes tax requirements, regulations about political lobbying, and rules around making decisions in good faith.
  • Role-specific responsibilities. The tasks of a chairperson, a vice-chair, a board secretary, a treasurer, and a committee leader (we could go on…) are different. The specific responsibilities of each member’s role needs to be clear from the start.

But how do you communicate all of this without causing information overload? Here are a few tips to create an e-learning course that’s effective, but not overwhelming:

  • Focus on the information that’s most valuable. While the history of your nonprofit is important information, it’s not need-to-know right off the bat. Focus on information that’s immediately actionable—for example, how your board meetings function—for early courses.
  • Find creative solutions to sharing dull content. Let’s be honest: tax considerations don’t make for thrilling, page-turner content. However, there are ways to spice up your course, such as using click-to-reveal, drag-and-drop, sliders and dials, and labeling and sorting.

This graphic displays a training tool that requires users to drag and drop the definition to the correct term.

  • Use examples to convey challenging material. We were once tasked with teaching American Red Cross volunteers to complete complicated statistical tracking forms. Rather than text-filled slides, we walked through examples with visual aids to clearly convey the information.

Use visual aids to hone in on specific skills when training board members.

There is a ton of information that board members need to learn to be successful in their roles. By focusing on the need-to-know content, and making that content interesting, you’ll prep new members for success on their first day (and set the foundation for “on the job” learning down the line).

Skill 2: Sourcing Resources and Gifts

Let’s dial into one of the skills from the last section—the ability to advance the mission of your organization. Specifically, let’s start with sourcing resources and gifts to give your team the financial and in-kind support needed to advance your mission.

New members are joining your board because they are eager to serve… but that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently comfortable with the “gift solicitation” portion of that. For example, let’s say you’re conducting a capital campaign. In that scenario:

  • George should speak with his fellow philanthropists to discover whether any are strong major gift prospects.
  • Susan should turn to her corporate peers, seeking potential sponsorship opportunities.
  • Thao should work her community connections to secure donated venue spaces for any campaign events.

When it comes to major campaigns, board members are expected to step up and garner some of the major resources needed to fuel your campaign to success.

How can you train people who aren’t professional fundraisers to do just that? Here are a few tips to create effective e-learning courses to do so:

  • Empower board members to practice. Consider creating an e-learning game that tests gift solicitation skills… without the consequences of actually losing a potential major gift. Ask board members to respond to common questions from donors and receive feedback on their responses to continue improving.
  • Present realistic scenarios and challenges. When having board members practice, should they learn how to respond to questions like “If aliens invade Earth and your campaign needs to halt, what will you do with my donation?” or “What are your plans for using funds? Reaching your goal gift amount? Reallocating funds if you fail to do so?” We’d guess the latter. Structure your scenarios accordingly to avoid wasting your learners’ time.

Soliciting gifts is a common pain point for those who are newer to the nonprofit world. Consider working with an e-learning content development company to create courses to help new board members overcome this obstacle. This team can not only build custom courses from the ground-up but also bring experience in course design and development to ensure the course is effective.

Skill 3: Strong Leadership Abilities to Steer Committees

The board members you choose undoubtedly stand out in their communities—but, can they stand out as leaders for your nonprofit? Of course, not every board member is cut out to be the board chair or vice-chair… but that’s far from the only leadership position that members are expected to fill. Fundraising committees, campaign planning committees, legal committees, finance committees, and more—board members are required to help steer these groups to success.

Now, not every board member will join your organization ready to step into a leadership role. But in order to get them there, here’s how to create e-learning courses to elevate them to success:

  • Include a mindset-changing, “wow” moment. If a board member doesn’t feel like their leadership will truly make a difference, build up their confidence. For example, consider outlining the great work that board members have done in the past, and the reverberating benefits that have resulted. If that’s not inspiring, what is?
  • Narrow your focus within courses. Rather than creating a large course on every challenge that leaders face, consider creating microcourses that highlight specific leadership challenges. Those that struggle with resolving conflict can take a course on that, while those that struggle with confident communication can take a course on that topic.
  • Provide a variety of solutions to leadership challenges. Let’s consider a specific challenge that leaders can face: resolving conflict. In your course, provide a variety of solutions to overcome the challenge, rather than one be-all-end-all solution. This increases the likelihood that your course will actually be helpful—which is the goal (helping board members be more successful at their jobs).

Your board is not only public-facing but also responsible for upholding crucial legal and fiduciary considerations. The group needs to lead your organization with confidence—it’s that simple. While not every member will be a natural-born leader, e-learning courses can help build that confidence in no time.

Bringing on new board members is exciting. But at the same time, it’s a huge responsibility.

It’s your job to make sure these board members are set up for success from the start, with the shortest learning curve possible (after all, your mission isn’t pausing for board members to get up-to-speed).

E-learning courses are effective for training board members about their basic responsibilities, fundraising, leadership, and more. With these tips, your courses will have a strong foundation, and your new board members will be bound for success.

Amy Morrisey is the author of this article on what skills to focus on with new board member training. Author: Amy Morrisey

Amy Morrisey is the President of Artisan E-Learning and serves as Sales & Marketing Manager. Amy started with Artisan as a contract writer/instructional designer. She was our Production Manager for four years and helped the team to double its capacity. As President, she stays focused on maintaining the high standards our clients have grown to expect. She believes that staying close to our clients, our people, and our work is a smart way to do that. One of her favorite things to do in the e-learning world is jump in with a client to write a storyboard that is creative and application-based. Before working with Artisan, Amy spent 17 years in corporate training and development predominantly teaching leadership development and coaching teams and executives. She currently serves on the board of ATD Detroit.