One of the most contentious issues for any charitable organization is the role of the board of directors.
Even the best-heeled boards must regularly redefine their roles as the organization evolves and market forces change. This is particularly true with board-staff relations.
With that as the backdrop, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a review copy of "Effective Nonprofit Board Leadership," a video and small workbook produced by the Applied Research and Development Institute, a division of the nonprofit Support Centers of America. Many Maryland nonprofit staff and board members have taken seminars and workshops offered by the Washington branch of the Support Centers.
The package is designed to be used either by boards seeking to clarify their roles or by trainers who are working with nonprofit boards. The 28-minute video has fade-outs after each section, enabling the leader to stop the action and generate a series of discussions.
The program begins with a definition and discussion of the overarching responsibilities of boards, namely the duties of care, loyalty and obedience. The duty of care refers to the requirement that board members act prudently, the duty of loyalty that members act in good faith and in the best interests of the organization, and the duty of obedience that the board acts within both the law and the organization's own mission, bylaws and rules.
Next, the program defines the eight functions of a board: financial management, program oversight, planning, financial development, human resource management, information management, marketing and public relations, and board affairs.
The video presents the viewer with the scenario of a mythical board in action, played by professional actors. At times amateurish, the presentation nevertheless does give a realistic portrayal of typical issues that arise at board meetings.
One of the most succinct presentations involves the discussion of conflicts of interest, an issue that has received increased attention recently, in part due to high-profile scandals involving nonprofits.
Using an example of a real estate issue, ARDI advises that potential conflicts begin with a full disclosure of the potential conflict by the member involved to the full board. Next, the board is advised to fully consider the issue without the participation of the affected member. Finally, "the terms of the transactions with an interested member of the board must be at least as good a deal as could be obtained from someone else with no ties to the organization." While my professional advice to boards is more stringent than that, the ARDI position is a solid minimum which would serve boards well.
The board leadership program comes in two versions. The first is for use by or with a single board. The second is for a trainer who will be working with multiple boards at a single session. Prices range from $100 for the single package to $200 for the multiple board presentation. Development costs were underwritten by The Lilly Endowment. ARDI can be contacted at (303) 691-6076.
Another resource that Maryland nonprofits should be aware of is the new Maryland Nonprofits 1994 calendar. This is another fine publication of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, now more than 310 members strong.
Every page of the calendar is full of information about the volunteer sector in Maryland. There is general information about the sector itself, and profiles of selected nonprofits, all wrapped around a weekly calendar. What one comes away with is an appreciation of the incredible array of nonprofits that serve our community needs.
If you are the director or board chair of a Maryland nonprofit and your organization does not belong to Maryland Nonprofits, what are you waiting for? Forget their workshops, seminars, resource library, software showcase, committees, surveys, research and advocacy work. Their monthly mailings alone are worth the membership fee.
Boards of directors may wish to consider drafting a list of local legislators and others to whom they wish to send a copy of the calendar, along with some of their own marketing materials. Anyone who peruses the calendar will come away with a better appreciation of how nonprofits contribute to our communities. Call (410) 727-6367 or (800) 273-6367 to order or for membership information.
(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202,  783-5100)