Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Here's where board members can get help

While discussing the spending scandal at Blue Grass Airport in my column Wednesday, I suggested that someone should offer training for board members who oversee local government and non-profit organizations.

I'm pleased to report that at least two groups already do that — and they expect to see a lot more interest as the airport investigation keeps making headlines.

"I've gotten two e-mails today wanting sample expense policies," said Danielle Clore, director at the Nonprofit Leadership Initiative, an arm of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's extension service. "When there's a crisis, we get the call. But normally, people just pretend everything's going to be fine."

The initiative, which started in 2002, works with non-profit organizations throughout the state to train board members and develop governance policies.

Clore said the group conducts about 50 training sessions a year and plans to offer a Webinar beginning in March. Many non-profit organizations ask incoming board members to attend the session. Some companies, such as Toyota, sponsor the training for employees who serve on boards. The initiative also offers advanced training in specific areas.

"We've had some high-profile people attend and say later they had no idea what they were doing," Clore said. "Where else would you learn that?"

The next general session of Nonprofit Boards 101 will be Friday, Feb. 6, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at UK's E.S. Good Barn. The registration deadline is Thursday at noon. The session is free to Nonprofit Network members and $30 for others. For more information, go to the initiative's Web site, www.kynonprofits.org, or call (859) 257-2542.

Another resource is the United Way of the Bluegrass's Get On Board program. More than 200 people have gone through the program since it was created in 2004 to encourage more diversity in board membership. The program, which meets one Saturday and then one evening a week for nine weeks, is conducted twice a year.

"It covers things like, 'what does it mean to be a board member?'" said David Kitchen of the United Way. "What are the legal ramifications? What is expected of me? Down to how to read financial statements and understanding Robert's Rules of Order."

Applications for the next Get On Board class are due Feb. 27. The program is free, but admission is competitive. For more information, go to www.uwbg.org and look under the "our programs" tab, call (859) 233-4460, or e-mail getonboard@uwbg.org.

What must good board members know?

"Number one is that they are legally responsible," Clore said. "The buck stops with the board. They have all the power and authority, but they also have the accountability. A lot of people don't realize that."

Board members can be sued, and they should make sure the organization has insurance to cover legal expenses, she said.

Before joining a board, members should ask about the time commitment and responsibilities, such as fund-raising. Once you're on a board, it's important to attend all meetings, review paperwork thoroughly beforehand and ask tough questions.

Clore said it's vital for boards to make sure that organizations have good policies and procedures in place, especially when it comes to money — and that they are strictly followed. Conflicts of interest also should be covered by formal policies.

Sensitive duties, such as handling money, should be spread out among several people. It protects the organization and it protects individuals if problems arise. It's also a good idea for most organizations to get outside financial audits, and to change auditors periodically.

"Some of these organizations say we've worked with this auditor for years and it would be expensive to change," Clore said. "But the whole goal of an audit is a fresh set of eyes, and if you've had an auditor for 10 years, that's not a fresh set of eyes."

Two keys to a strong organization are a great board and a great executive director. But that relationship can be difficult to manage.

"It is not the board's job to be friends with and admire the executive director — it's their job to supervise this person, eyes wide open," Clore said. "So many boards get too comfortable in good times, and it can be easy to forget your legal and ethical responsibilities, which I would argue require a dose of skepticism to be cautious.

"Boards must also take a look at who is 'driving the bus,'" she said. "If the executive director is the one out front and really running the board from behind the scenes, this can be a major cause for concern and a symptom of bigger issues. I'm amazed at organizations that continue to put their faith in one person or a handful of people."

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