Questions to Ask BEFORE Joining a Board

Are You Considering Joining a Board?

Working with nonprofits gives you the opportunity to give back to your community.  Some nonprofits may recruit you to serve as a board member for their organization.  Volunteering with nonprofits teaches me a lot about service and fuels my passion for giving back.

The Board Leads

From my experience in working with nonprofits,  often they discuss their struggles and usually reference external influences as their greatest challenge.  As I dive deeper into their organization and talk to key personnel, I see a pattern that shows that most of the organization’s problems are rooted in internal processes.  

 The board is the ‘boss’, it provides leadership and holds the organization accountable for their actions. The struggle to guide passionate, effective board members is a real struggle. Developing strong board service is crucial to improving the overall organization.  As I began to understand how board development influenced the organization,  I made a decision only to serve on boards where I can fully devote my time and attention to improving the overall function of the organization.  Agreeing to be on five boards simultaneously and not being able to be effective on one is pointless.  That’s why I only serve on one or two boards at a time, depending on the health, effectiveness and demands of the boards.  When you consider serving on a board,  perform your due diligence and ask a few questions before you take on that responsibility and decide to serve as a board member.  

Key Questions to Ask

The FIRST question to ask is, ‘When will the 501c3 be formed?’
Yes, we often think the IRS determination is already in place.  However, just because an organization is a nonprofit it does not mean that they have their 501c3. So please ask!  Ask for a copy of their IRS certificate. Is it a public record and should be posted on their website. You do not want to assume that the 501c3 process is complete; you want to confirm that it is in place and up-to-date. Often, a nonprofit organization’s 501c3 documents are pending, and they may be operating under another agency’s 501c.

What is the Board Member history?

Ask how many board members have left in the past 5 to 10 years.   You want to know how many have joined the board in that same time frame. How many have been forced to leave or resign?  If they can legally discuss these details, it can help you make an informed decision on board service.

Who is the President and/or Executive Director?

You don’t have to agree with everything the Executive Director or President does, but you want to respect each person as the leader of a nonprofit and believe that she/he represents the core values and attributes of the organization.   Get to know the leaders of the organization.  What kind of reputation do they have in the community the nonprofit serves?  Do they interact with the community, with funders, donors, or the people they serve?  Are they required to attend meetings?  Do they work full-time?  Is the majority of their time away from the nonprofit offices? Do they have a track record of helping their organization in innovated ways to reach their mission?
In most smaller non-profits, the President/Executive Director and is the driving force for the organization.   These are the types of nonprofits that attract me.  It’s not that the others are bad or non-producing, but when the passion exudes from the leader it trickles down to the rest of the organization.  Check this person out to see if you’ll be working with an active leader or will they participate in the board in name only.

What is the Fundraising Plan?

If the response is that’s why we’re asking you to be on our board as the grant writer, then don’t serve on that board.  Believe me, I have received this request and response.  My suggestion is to RUN!!   I don’t care how passionate I am about the cause;  I don’t want to serve on a board if the value I bring is that I write grants.  I don’t serve on boards to write grants, and neither should you.  Yes, we are concerned about getting funds for the organization, and we want to serve in a capacity where the board works together to use creative fundraising techniques as well as creative ideas and marketing strategies to increase funds.

Who is your target audience?

If a nonprofit serves only young women or youth boys and girls, it is it is important to know their target population as it will help you understand and participate in strategic planning that includes program design, outreach efforts, and marketing campaigns.
Even though you are not the marketing director or even on the marketing team, you can still produce great ideas.  You need to know who you’re serving and who you need to attract. I have seen great agencies doing phenomenal things in the community with great missions with nonperforming and non-contributing board members. They could have done more with engaged and supportive board members.

Do you have Bylaws in Place?

Because the board of directors is responsible for protecting the nonprofit,  as a potential board member, you will need to review the organization’s bylaws and make sure you’re comfortable with everything in place. If there’s anything that you’re uncertain about within the bylaws, ask questions.
Even though bylaws and responsibilities may differ from organization to organizations, the general responsibility of the board is to make sure the activities, funds, personnel, and executive director are acting in the best interest of the nonprofit.  Acting in the best interest includes the interest of the community they serve and responsibly managing the funds to bring the mission to life.

Does the Nonprofit have an attorney and accountant on retainer?

Ask if both of these professionals represent the organization in any capacity and will you have access to them if required.

Do you have an Advisory Board?

An advisory board is a supplemental board team that supports the main board.  Is there an opportunity to serve on this board? Do you have to work directly with these members and what roles and responsibilities are expected from both groups?
I have seen nonprofits, and even corporate, boards struggle with letting go of the reins and holding on to the same people on the board. To avoid this kind of drama, an advisory board is put in place to bring to light new and fresh ideas and allow different board members to have a voice.   An effective advisory board shows the organization is typically forward thinking and not stuck in their old non-producing ways.

What is the annual expected giving amount of board members?

I talk to my peers who are also board members and they each know or have experiences with someone on a board who has no interest in the organization, the community resources, or services they provide.  Sometimes, board members are only serving as a member to use it as a platform to enhance their resume or add clout to boost or propel their position.
Let me just say that “This is Wack!“, and it is disgraceful.  Okay, maybe that is being a bit harsh, but nonprofits are birthed from blood, sweat, and tears because someone took the courage to serve a need to a specific group of people. Nonprofits are founded from a place of selflessness – when board members take a position only to advance self, they take away the opportunity for someone else to represent the mission and truly serve the nonprofit and the community.  Now I know serving on a board can lead to other great opportunities, but this is an outcome, not the purpose.

A Question for You:

From your experience, what questions would you ask?

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DeaRonda Harrison

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