You certainly want to join the board of an organization where you find the mission meaningful. But be careful not to wind up in a situation that you will soon regret. You can save yourself and the nonprofit from a bad match by taking a few steps before committing to join a board.
Here are the ten things you need to know and do:
- Meet with the organization’s chief executive officer–sometimes referred to as the executive director. The CEO’s effectiveness is essential to the organization’s success, so getting a sense of the CEO is important. Additionally, the CEO is likely to have a say in who is selected for the board, so meeting is an opportunity for you to establish rapport. And, the CEO should be able to bring the organization’s work to life and help give you insights into items 2-9 below.
- Understand the work of the organization and how it assesses its effectiveness. It’s a good idea to visit at least one program site to see the program(s) and staff in action.
- Find out the size of the budget and the revenue model: what percentage of funding comes from government, fees for services, and philanthropy–corporations, foundations, and individuals. The CEO can describe this, and you can also see this for yourself on the organization’s IRS 990 form. When you know where the money comes from, or where it might be augmented, then you can better understand how the board can be useful to the CEO in building revenues.
- Find out who is chairing the board, and how they regard their role as chair and the role of the board. Try to get a sense of the rapport between the chair and the CEO. See who serves in the other officer positions. And ask if there is a plan for leadership succession.
- Meet with at least one board member, ideally a board member in a leadership position, such as the chair of the board governance committee (nominating committee) or board chair.
- Review the list of board members and their backgrounds to find out the caliber and diversity of experience and backgrounds. Find out the extent to which they are contributing financially and otherwise. This will also help you understand if you have something to add that others might not bring to the table and the likelihood of your being a fit for the board.
- Ask what will be expected of you as a board member, in terms of attendance at board meetings, participation on committees, financial contributions, fundraising, and anything else
- Ask for and read the following items: the organization’s bylaws, most recent audit and management letter, budget, a strategic plan if there is one, and organizational materials.
- Find out the size of the organization’s cash reserve. According to the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2010 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey results, 61% had 3 months or less of a cash reserve on hand, 19% had 4-6 months, and 20% had 6 or more months. If the cash reserve is close to the edge, find out how it is being monitored. Also check if there is an endowment, whether the organization is cutting into it, and the implications and long-term plan related to the endowment.
- Google the organization to see if there were any past problems. One nonprofit I was assessing showed up on google with a claim, two years prior, of fraudulent reporting. I contacted the CEO to ask her about it. She responded immediately, invited me to meet with her and the CFO, both of whom joined the organization after the settlement. They laid out the entire situation and all of the documentation. Impressed by their response, I proceeded to recommend a board candidate, sharing this information with him as well. This was two years ago; today, he serves in a major leadership role. The CEO and her senior team, as well as the organization, have proven to be outstanding.
By learning about the organization before you make a decision about joining the board, you will have a better idea of what will be expected of you.
Don’t be scared away by an organization that has challenges. That’s exactly why they need you. Furthermore, your sense of reward and satisfaction will be magnified by your ability to be useful. You can make a powerful contribution to advance a cause that is meaningful to you.
The key is finding the right board for you, and going in with your eyes wide open.