Has being asked to serve on a nonprofit board of directors taken you by surprise? If so, it’s not the best idea to give a firm answer right away. Much more goes into serving on a nonprofit board of directors than most people think. It’s best to do a little research, and maybe talk to some seasoned board directors so that you can ask some important and intelligent questions before accepting a vacant board seat.
If you’re not new to board directorship, the following points will supplement any questions that you currently have.
Serving on a nonprofit board is rewarding, and it can be a lot of fun too. Board directors also need to know that serving on nonprofit boards presents certain risks and they need to be prepared for them. Recruiting boards will respect you for doing your homework and asking all the right questions. Getting as much information about the board and the organization before you get a formal appointment will help you get off on the right foot from the first day.
Does the Board Have a Strategic Plan?
Strategic planning is one of the board’s primary activities. Boards need to have a strategic plan so that they know what staff to hire and what resources they need to allocate for operational purposes. The very first question to ask is whether the board has a strategic plan. If they do, ask to see it and learn more about what their goals are, how they have prioritized their goals and what their approach is toward achieving them.
If they don’t have a strategic plan, find out if there is a reason why. It may be that the strategic plan is in process, but if it’s not, it could be a red flag for a poorly performing board.
What Are the Fundraising Requirements?
Fundraising takes a close second to strategic planning among board priorities. Find out early how active the organization is with their fundraising efforts. Do they have regular fundraising activities annually?
Do all board directors participate equally in fundraising efforts? What are the board’s expectations for them related to board member giving?
Best practices indicate that board directors should make a practice of personal giving, even if the amounts are small. It’s best to find out early what the board expects from each board director with respect to personal giving. If finances are tight and you still want to serve on the board, ask if they’ll accept donations in-kind in lieu of financial contributions.
How Often Does the Board Meet?
Everyone’s time is at a premium. Find out how often the board meets on a regular basis. If they expect you to also serve on a board committee, find out what your time commitment would be for that as well.
Have there been any crises in the last few years that have required adding more board meetings? What were the crises, and how quickly was the board able to resolve them?
Nonprofit boards usually meet monthly or quarterly. If the board meets less often than that, what is the reason why? What are they accomplishing in that amount of time? This could be a red flag of whether serving on the board is worth your time and energy.
Getting Clarification on Current Board Roles
The size of nonprofit boards contributes to productivity. Find out who is currently on the board and what their roles and responsibilities are. Are all current board members active? Find out what prompted them to ask you to serve on their board? What are they hoping to gain from your board service?
Are they still looking to add board directors to the board? What roles do they still need to fill? Boards that understand best practices for good board composition won’t be stumbling over the answers to these questions and will have well-prepared, honest answers.
Ask the board if they have a written description of the duties and expectations for board directors. Do they make a practice of doing annual self-evaluations? If so, ask if they evaluate individual board members, the whole board or both.
Most boards will have defined terms that are staggered. As the board will be continually turning over, ask about the board’s process for succession planning, especially for important board directors like the board chair and the board president.
What Are the Next Steps If They Offer You a Board Position?
In planning ahead, ask what the next steps are if they choose to offer you a spot on the board. Do they have a formal board orientation process? You’ll want to know when you can get copies of important documents such as:
- Articles of Incorporation
- Annual report
- Financial reports
- Previous meeting minutes
- Committee reports
- Organizational chart
- Strategic plan
- Board director contact list
- Form 990
- Profit and loss statement
These documents should give you a good ideas if the organization is in a sound financial state or whether they’re struggling and assure you that the board is in compliance with nonprofit laws.
What Insurance Policies Does the Organization Carry?
The two most important insurance policies that the board should have in place are Directors & Officers (D&O) Insurance and Worker’s Compensation. Board directors can be made liable for certain actions and decisions made by the board because due diligence is part of their fiduciary duties. D&O insurance will help to protect board directors from undue liability.
What Is the Board’s Relationship With Staff and Donors?
As a board director, you can expect to work closely with the rest of the board, management and the donors. Boards should have mutual respect for managers and donors. Each party should understand their roles and fulfill their individual roles without bleeding over into someone else’s role.
Well-established boards should have a few strong donors and should be continually seeking more grants and donors to keep the organization growing.
What Technology Does the Board Use and Is It Secure?
There’s a strong move for nonprofit boards to use a board portal system. The threat from hackers is growing by leaps and bounds, and it’s important that boards use a highly secure platform for conducting board work. If they’re using a board portal, the board will easily be able to pull up all of the documents that you request and be fully prepared to answer all of your questions.
If the board isn’t currently using a board portal, ask if there’s a reason for that. If they don’t currently have a board portal system, find out if it’s something they have budgeted for — or are willing to budget for —in the next few years.
In asking and answering questions, consider the stage of development that the nonprofit is currently in before judging too harshly. Base your final decision on where the organization is now and where they hope to be within the next several years. By asking the right questions, you’ll have a good feel about whether a board position would be a good fit for you.