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Boards in Gear: A New Tool to Help Busy Board Members Know What They Need to Know to Achieve Their Mission

Boards in Gear: A New Tool to Help Busy Board Members Know What They Need to Know to Achieve Their Mission

By Nancy Bacon, Director of Learning, Washington Nonprofits

Washington has 58,000 nonprofits. More than 75% of them have budgets of $100,000 or less. So by rough estimates, 580,000 board members need training but lack significant professional development funds to do so. And these nonprofits do our communities’ most important work; they feed the hungry, educate our children, care for our seniors, and protect our earth. Their success matters. How do busy board members learn what they need to know so that their organizations can thrive?

Boards in Gear is one answer to that question. Boards in Gear, also called BIG because of the large role nonprofit boards play in the success of an organization, is a free online set of learning tools that includes short videos, supporting kit materials, and a game. It was created in the same format as Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits (FUN), making it perfect for people wanting to learn something in their free time or groups wanting to bring in an expert to anchor group discussion.  Boards in Gear also provides the foundation for a four-hour training that Washington Nonprofits is implementing across Washington with the support of the Office of the Secretary of State.

Boards in Gear breaks down what board members need to know into five main buckets:

  • Connection to Cause – Board members place the work of the organization within a larger cause to understand its place in the system in which it works and to affect changes that better that system when possible. They serve as ambassadors, advocates, and leaders for a cause that they are passionate about.
  • Roles and Responsibilities – Board members fulfill their responsibilities, from setting a clear mission to making that mission happen through effective programs. The board is entrusted by the State and by the community to ensure that the organization pursues its mission vigorously, is compliant with all federal, state, and local requirements, and conducts activities with accountability and transparency.
  • Creating a Great Board – A nonprofit board ensures that the board itself has the characteristics and qualifications needed to effectively represent the people that the organization serves and the organization’s needs.
  • Sustaining a Great Board – The board operates in a way that achieves the organization’s mission effectively and efficiently.
  • Fundraising –  Board members secure adequate resources for the organization in ways that allow it to be sustainable over time. They conduct fundraising activities in a manner that upholds the public’s trust in their stewardship of contributed funds.

How do you know that your board has learned what it needs to learn? The Boards in Gear Pathway helps guide boards forward. It can be used as a pre-assessment to determine what the board most needs to learn. It can also be used as tracking tool to see how progress is being made over time. And because board members who laugh together learn together, we created a game to accompany Boards in Gear. Yes, a board game. As you roll the dice and work your way around the circle, you will find yourself sharing information about your board in ways that you don’t usually have the chance to in board meetings.

Boards in Gear features board experts talking about the most important elements of these five areas. These experts include Amara Oden, Laura Pierce, Nancy Long, Rebecca Zanatta, Sara Lawson, and Susan Howlett. Rebecca Sherrell from the Secretary of State’s office and Howard Donkin from Jacobson Jarvis PLLC speak about the important compliance role that board members have. Besides videos, Boards in Gear features a collection of key documents and tools mentioned through the videos. The ultimate goal of Boards in Gear is to make sure that every board in Washington has what it needs to succeed. It brings together what we know about boards and what works in adult learning to offer nonprofits a proven way to bring learning into the life of their organizations.

About the Author
Nancy Bacon is Director of Learning with Washington Nonprofits, our state’s nonprofit association with the mission of making sure all nonprofits have what they need to succeed. She can be reached at nancy@washingtonnonprofits.org. For more information about Washington Nonprofits, visit us online.

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