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Community Vitality helping train South Dakota board members for service with customized curriculum

Three women sit at a booth in a small cafe.
Members of the Community Vitality team attend the 2021 Energize! event in Milbank. Community Vitality has created SDSU Extension’s Building Highly Effective Boards curriculum to teach South Dakota board members how to thrive in their roles. The cu

When Kari O’Neill was in 4-H, she remembers starting each meeting with a roll call topic. It could be something as basic as “where is your favorite vacation spot?” or “what’s your favorite dessert?”

It’s a simple technique to get people talking – and more importantly, listening – to one another. From there, they can begin to build trust. 

That’s just one of the tools O’Neill and the Community Vitality team are using as part of SDSU Extension’s Building Highly Effective Boards curriculum, to teach South Dakota board members how to thrive in their roles. 

O’Neill, the SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager, said the seed for the board-training curriculum was planted six or seven years ago, inspired by a Kansas State Extension training. It took a few years and a lot of revamping, but her team developed and launched the Building Highly Effective Boards curriculum over the last couple of years. She said it meets a growing need in South Dakota to give board members the fundamentals they need to be effective.

“We were hearing across the state that boards needed some help,” O’Neill said. “People were saying ‘there’s nothing out there that we can afford.’ There is board training available, but it’s very expensive. We wanted to develop a basic, high-quality training that smaller organizations could afford.”

The Community Vitality team has already worked with about 20 boards across the public and private sector, and O’Neill said there are “more every month.” Nonprofits tend to be their most frequent students, but the team has worked with public and private boards from a variety of areas. 

“We wanted to develop a basic, high-quality training that smaller organizations could afford.”

— Kari O'Neill, SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager

Designed with a high degree of flexibility, the curriculum can accommodate a board of any size. Last summer, for example, O’Neill said the team traveled to Sisseton and trained two boards at the same time so they could pool their resources on the training costs. 

“We’ll come right to you,” O’Neill said, noting that the training can also be done virtually. 

The curriculum now includes seven topics, known as modules. Those modules start with “Board Fundamentals – Roles and Effective Meetings,” and help to get everyone on the same page.

Other modules range from helping people parse their interpersonal skills with “First Class Group Dynamics – Trust, Ethics and Conflict” and “Finding, Engaging and Strengthening Board Members.” For boards more interested in boosting their bottom line, modules “Compelling Storytelling and Mission-Driven Fundraising” and “Core Financial Concepts for Non-Profit Boards” make sure everyone has a solid foundation. And in an ever-more complex legal and governance system, “Technically Speaking: Understanding Procedure and Legal Fundamentals” provides board members with the basics on a board’s legal system, bylaws, and things like conflicts of interest. 

“We are finding that even learning the basics of board development gives board members the confidence they need to fulfill their roles,” she said.

For boards who already have the basics handled but need a springboard, the curriculum also provides “Strategic Planning for Boards,” a more in-depth session giving boards a chance to detail their direction over the next one to three years.

Each module is designed as a two-hour session except for the Strategic Planning, O’Neill said, which is usually at least four to eight hours, depending on where a board is in their process. 

While the curriculum is still in the tweaking stage, O’Neill said she and her team keep a close eye on several key, credible sources for new, updated information as well as feedback from training participants. 

“I think every time we teach (Fundamentals) we change something,” O’Neill said. “We want to keep the modules as relevant as possible for our learners.”
For more information, contact Kari O’Neill, SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager. 

Learn More about Building Highly Effective Boards

To learn more about the Building Highly Effective Boards curriculum or to reserve your spot, visit our program overview page.

Program Overview