My grandfather worked most of his life at Hatch and Bailey’s Lumberyard in Westport, Connecticut. He was a Lumberman, and once a year, for one day, he went to the Lumberman’s Convention in New York City. My Grandfather was a stern German-American who was a deacon in his church. Not all lumbermen were so straightlaced, and the Lumberman’s Conference was known for its … reverie. When my mother told my grandmother that my father was attending the Annual Meeting of the American
Economics Association for TWO WEEKS, my grandmother was horrified, never suspecting that my father was such a reprobate.

Conferences can be a great source of information and inspiration.

Most nonprofits belong to a regional or national association or similar affinity group that holds an annual conference.  These can be a great source of information and inspiration for both management and board members.

I witnessed this firsthand last month when I attended the LeadingAge Annual meeting in Chicago.  LeadingAge is the national association of nonprofit “post-acute care” (nursing home, home care, hospice and senior residential) providers.  The program included four days of a wide variety of educational offerings, plenary sessions with awards, recognitions and top-quality speakers and a trade show with over 300 vendors offering a wide variety of products and services, everything from medivans to complex, specialized software for managing residential communities.

Most professionals in the field have a license or certification that requires continuing education; for them, these conferences offer a one-stop opportunity to obtain those education credits, stay on top of recent developments in the field, and learn about innovative solutions to common problems.

Are conferences for board members?

At the LeadingAge annual meeting, there was a respectable turnout of trustees; however, several organizations were in line to receive national awards, and they brought large groups of trustees, while most agencies brought none. The directors participated in all the same plenary sessions, awards ceremonies and educational seminars.  The trustees interacted with other trustees, were inspired by the prominent speakers and gained valuable knowledge in the breakout sessions.

Directors ask: why doesn’t my CEO want me to attend the annual conference?

Many CEOs are reluctant to bring board members to annual meetings. It could be that your CEO plans to have a lot of fun without you, but more likely, he has three or four good reasons, not the least of which is that trustees are often unable to give up four or five days from their busy schedules for a program that might not even have a clear program track for them.

At annual conferences, most CEOs are very busy speaking with their peers, learning about new developments in their field, and considering new products to improve the quality of their agency’s services. To add to these activities, the job of escorting directors and managing their meals and transportation is an additional burden for which your CEO may not see the marginal benefit. Also, attending national meetings can be costly when you add in flights, hotels, meals and conference registration.

These negatives can be offset by the positives a director can experience from attending an annual meeting, but only if a well-organized program exists for trustees.  Many organizations pay lip service to the desire to incorporate trustees in annual conferences, and whole industries talk about the need for lay directors to be leaders of the organization.  But the fact is there are very few conferences that are designed to appeal to both professional leadership and lay directors. Many arguments against having directors attend can be mitigated; for example, programming for directors could span two days of the four-day meeting with directors attending plenary sessions and a “trustee track” of educational presentations with content designed just for them.  A specific trustee-oriented program, including meals and receptions, would also allow the CEO to be free of the need to provide logistical support to the participating directors.

What about shorter, regional meetings targeted to trustees?

Another alternative would be for regional and state organizations to develop conferences specifically for lay directors and hold them at convenient times and locations to attract the largest number of participants.  A dedicated trustee conference would offer topics of interest to the directors and afford ample time for networking and storytelling among the participants.

 An excellent option would be a regional conference the CEO could attend with his board leadership.

Like running a nonprofit agency, being a dedicated director is hard and thankless work. While spending hours approving budgets and discussing the agency’s strategic vision are critical tasks for boards, they often don’t come with much inspiration.  Coming together on a state or national level with peers to hear about what organizations are doing to address common interests can be inspirational. It will allow the director to recharge and potentially bring home some interesting ideas for your board to consider.

Should directors pay their own way?

While nonprofit directors usually serve without compensation, nothing prohibits an organization from covering travel expenses associated with attending a conference. Some directors may choose to pay their own expenses as a tax-deductible way of offsetting costs for the charity, and others may wish to pay for their spouse to attend. However, nonprofits should reimburse directors for their own reasonable expenses.  The preferred approach would be to have a policy that promotes participation and encourages board leadership to attend conferences periodically. Since the main variable costs will be travel expenses, conferences close to home (and within driving distance) may be better promoted than those requiring transcontinental flights.  And skip the first-class air travel.

Four steps to improve your director education

Four steps to improve your director education.

  1. Write a board policy encouraging directors, particularly board officers, to attend relevant conferences and seminars.

  2. Search out programs with content directed at issues important to directors.

  3. Actively encourage directors to expand their time commitment to your organization by participating in this form of continuing education.

  4. Ask your trade association to develop trustee-targeted learning experiences and to include a “director’s track” at annual conferences.