Agenda Priority: Board Education
By Mark D. Burkhardt, Director for Outdoor Ministries, ELCA
A major area of responsibility for any board of directors is education. Many ELCA outdoor ministry board members have limited experience serving on the board of a nonprofit organization other than a congregational council. Others have extensive experience serving on multiple boards. Some have experience serving on or relating to a for-profit company. This variety of experience often creates tension and even conflict as board members attempt to carry out their board responsibilities. Board members bring a variety of ideas about the responsibilities of serving on a board. Regardless of experience all board members can benefit from regularly scheduled agenda time dedicated to board education, also called board development.
In fact, healthy boards make an intentional effort to educate themselves at every board meeting. "But, there’s no time in our agenda for anything else," is the usual protest heard when this suggestion is made. If that’s the case with your board, then perhaps your first board education session might look at how to make more efficient use of agenda time. After all, your goal as a board should be to operate on the principle of pooled knowledge, not pooled ignorance. I would suggest that 30 minutes dedicated to board education at every board meeting can make a real positive difference in how your board operates.
I mentioned before that many board members have experience serving on congregational councils. This is not necessarily helpful for service on outdoor ministry boards. The dynamics of serving on a congregational council are often quite different. Council members live and work in the same community, they worship together regularly and often see each other several times a week. The lead staff person, the pastor, has a very special personal relationship with the people of the congregation. When congregational councils gather to do their work, it’s like a family meeting. In addition, most congregations have few employees, a modest budget, one or two buildings and a regular core of constituents. Outdoor ministry board members are typically elected from a broad geographical area, and seldom see each other between meetings. The lead staff person, the executive director, does not have the same kind of special relationship with board members as a parish pastor. Most outdoor ministries have many employees, budgets that are larger than most congregations, large pieces of property with multiple buildings, sizeable budgets and a high number of changing constituents. So, the dynamics of serving on an outdoor ministry board look and feel very different from those in a congregation.
Experience working in a for-profit environment is also quite different. Nonprofit organizations must use good business practices and board members who come with a strong business background can bring fantastic gifts to the board. However, there is also the natural tendency to treat the non-profit organization the same as a business. Your camp or retreat center is a ministry of the church. It exists to serve the needs of people, not to make a profit. Since there are no shareholders in a nonprofit, the "bottom line" takes on a different meaning. Positive balances at the end the year in a nonprofit are used to improve program and facilities, not to reward investors.
That’s why education is so important for outdoor ministry boards. Board members need to learn how to think, act and plan in ways that may be very different from their previous experience.
So, how does an outdoor ministry board educate itself? I’d like to share some suggestions:
- Do a Bible study together (example: Ephesians 4:1-16)
- Distribute and read an interesting article on non-profit management or trends prior to a meeting and discuss its implications for your organization.
- Go on a field trip to visit another camp/retreat center or visit an allied business (hospitality, food service, property management)
- Learn more about the needs of congregations by visiting with some congregational leaders - listen and don’t ask for money.
- Use an outside resource person; a consultant/trainer, a member of another nonprofit board, the executive of another outdoor ministry or another nonprofit organization.
- Go on a retreat. Spend Friday night on team building and Saturday focusing in-depth on a special topic.
- Assign a special reading to one board member. Have them summarize the reading and make a presentation to the board.
- Watch an educational video segment and discuss. (See information about the video, All a Board.)
As our outdoor ministry boards face critical decisions about the future, it would be really important for board members to take time to learn about how others in the nonprofit world are dealing with similar challenges. The combination of expanding programs, aging and overburdened facilities, increasing governmental regulation, and increasing competition for financial resources and staff are creating some very difficult challenges for today’s outdoor ministry boards. Those who take the time to educate themselves about future trends and available options will have the greatest chance of meeting the challenges successfully. Those who continue to rely on old ways of operating and on outmoded technologies will face increasing pressure and may not survive.
I would urge all of our boards to recommit themselves to quality. Our goal is to have high quality boards, programs, staff and operations. The children, youth and adults who value our outdoor ministry programs and facilities deserve the very best. Take some time to talk about your board’s commitment to education and make sure your next meeting agenda includes board education.