A not so innocent question

The governance committee of a large agency spent months discussing and researching possible board training solutions for their board, committees, and staff. The committee, the Executive Director and the board president had all agreed that it was time to do this again. The last board training was held 3 years before; it was a one-day live training that was highly regarded by all who attended. But now two-thirds of the board was new and hadn’t benefited from that training. The governance committee chair was noticing a difference in how the board was functioning and understood how beneficial it was for her to understand what her role and responsibilities were.

The governance committee had come up with a recommendation and the committee chair made the presentation to the board for approval. The chair finished her presentation and looked hopefully around the table for agreement.

A member of the Executive Committee who was also a new board member stopped the discussion in its tracks – “why do we need board training?”

The committee chair was speechless and didn’t know how to respond. It was an honest question but naïve. How do you respond to that? She did her best to explain but was never able to recover or to get the board to approve her recommendation.

What is wrong with this picture?

Does this sound familiar? It is a common scenario in the board dynamics of nonprofits. A well-meaning board member demonstrates their lack of awareness and understanding about the issue at hand, and, to avoid conflict, the group sidesteps the obvious elephant in the room.

The discussion about whether the board approved the governance committee’s recommendation became sidetracked as additional differences of opinions continued to be put on the table.

Being unconsciously incompetent

When we are unconsciously incompetent, we don’t know what we don’t know.

A board member who is unconsciously incompetent does not understand or know how to do something, and most importantly, does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill outright. This board member, in asking the question, demonstrated their unconscious incompetence and failed to recognize that governance competence is needed for a board to function.

When not trained, board members default to micromanaging other board members, committees and staff.

In the end, the board meeting derailed. The chair of the governance committee was undermined and felt frustrated. If this board dynamic continues, she might decide that being a board member is not a good use of valuable time and leave this board. At worst, she might decide to never be on board again denying other organizations the benefit of her dedication and expertise.

Why do boards need training?

According to Statistics Canada, the nonprofit sector contributed $169.2 billion in 2017 to the country’s gross domestic product. The boards of Canadian nonprofits are legally responsible for preserving and maintaining $6 billion dollars in assets.

Being a volunteer doesn’t mean untrained or incompetent. The altruism of volunteers is truly inspiring. However, you wouldn’t want an untrained volunteer helping in a natural disaster. Someone is likely going to get hurt or worse killed because of their unconscious incompetence.

But, sadly, many board volunteers believe that they don’t need to be trained. They are volunteers. They give freely of their time. This isn’t their job.

They don’t know what they don’t know, and then bumble through their terms, unconscious of how incompetent they are in their role as board members.

Lessons Learned

There are two lessons here that we can all learn.

Decisions made by your board affects everyone in your community. Like every activity, it requires training to ensure that it is done well and in the best interests of your community, the people who serve and the organization.

Every board member needs to understand this job and they need to be trained in governance. It takes time and commitment to understanding what the organization does and how to best advance the mission of the organization.

Instead of looking for consensus, the chair of the governance committee could have tabled a motion asking the board to approve the committee’s recommendation. Thus, a motion would have focused the discussion and limits the conversation from derailing.

Copyright March 2020
Christina Becker