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Six Questions to Ask Before Saying 'Yes' to Nonprofit Board Service

Photo of author, Kathleen McDermott.
Kathleen McDermott
Business Development Manager and Director of Nonprofit Advisory Services

“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” — Howard Zinn

Many of us want to give back to our communities and an important way to accomplish this is by serving on a nonprofit board. It is important for both the nonprofit organization and the potential board member to carefully take into consideration each parties’ expectations so the experience is not only meaningful for the board member but also helps the organization achieve its goals.

  1. “Why I am being considered?” is an important first question to ask so you know what the nonprofit is expecting from you. People are asked to serve on boards for numerous reasons but some of the most common reasons include the knowledge or professional expertise you may offer, access to your networks or your potential to financially support the organization. Having expectations aligned up front ultimately produces a better experience for both you and the organization.
  2. “How much time is required of me?” Time is a precious commodity in our busy lives and while attending a periodic board meeting may not seem like too much of a commitment, many nonprofits require board members to serve on committees, attend events, and participate in training. In addition, it would also be appropriate to inquire about term limits when taking into consideration how much time is required from you.
  3. “What is the board’s role in fund raising?” – Most nonprofits will, at least, ask for 100% giving of its board. Within this question, you should ask if board members are expected to give at a certain level and in support of what fund raising functions of the organization? Sometimes organizations will expect 100% of board members to contribute to an annual fund but others may require support of an annual fund, a special event and potentially a capital campaign. Knowing whether the giving expectations of new board role fits in with your charitable giving budget is an important planning step.Remember, truly engaged boards will also participate in other fund raising activities of the organization, including identifying, cultivating, and introducing individuals and businesses as potential donors. While you may not have to directly ask your friends and colleagues to give, you should be comfortable in at least opening your networks to the organization.
  4. “What are my legal obligations?” As a board member, you are acting in a position of trust or confidence on behalf of the organization and, therefore, you are expected to handle the affairs of the organization with same care and prudence that you apply to your personal concerns. As a board member, you should be familiar with all organizational information under your purview and be prepared for and attend meetings. You should place the interests of the organization above your own (be prepared to sign a conflict of interest statement) and maintain confidentiality. Lastly, as a board member, you adhere to the organizations by-laws, comply with applicable laws, and remain a guardian of the organization’s mission. Before joining a board, it is important to make sure proactive strategies are in place such things as D&O Insurance and good governance policies.
  5. “What can I learn in advance about this organization?” Perhaps you’ve volunteered for the organization or maybe your children participate in its activities. This level of participation doesn’t always provide insight into what is happening behind the scenes. Interview the person who is recruiting you about the organization or ask to speak to another board member. Spend some time looking at public information, such as the organization’s website or its 990 Form which can be accessed through www.guidestar.org. Lastly, make sure a board orientation is offered to new board members.
  6. “What are my motivations for joining this board?” Finally, it is always good to reflect on your motivations for joining a nonprofit board. While expanding your network, raising your public profile, or strengthening your skills are acceptable reasons for wanting to serve, the primary motivations for joining a board should always be that (1) you believe in the organization’s mission and (2) you want to support a cause you are passionate about.

Serving on a nonprofit board is a privilege, and it is certainly an honor to be considered. But it’s important to do your due diligence and find the right board for you. If you don’t feel you can be fully engaged, it’s alright to decline an offer to serve. Remember, board service is a “marriage” between an organization seeking vision and dynamic leadership and an individual with just the right resources of time, talent and treasurer to make a difference.

Thinking about becoming a nonprofit board member? Use this checklist to find out what you should know.


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