Serving as a board member takes your relationship with an organization to the next level. Whether you have worked with dozens of nonprofits or are contemplating service on your first board, vetting an organization before joining its board can make a difference in how well that relationship develops. Joining a board with a good understanding of its systems and its culture can make the difference between leaving the board before your term is officially over and signing on for a second term.
If you’ve agreed to meet to discuss board membership, the organization has cleared the first hurdle in the relationship—you have an interest in it. It’s likely that you know a little something about it. Perhaps you’re a donor, or a client, or you have a family member who has benefitted from the organization’s work. Less frequently, a relatively unknown organization may approach you due to your reputation, your skills and experience in a particular area, or upon the recommendation of a mutual friend. This is more unusual, but not unheard of.
If you’re not deeply familiar with the organization, listen for—or ask about—its mission, the people who are served by its work, and the impact that it has in the community. If these are values and activities that you support, you may want to learn a bit more. If not, it’s a good idea to end the conversation here. One of the critical functions of a board member is to support the organization’s mission. If you can’t do that wholeheartedly, the organization’s board is probably not a good fit for you.
Even if you’re an enthusiastic supporter of the organization’s mission and work, it’s important to assess whether it’s even feasible for you to serve on its board. Logistics such as the meeting schedule and amount of time expected from board members for various projects and activities will tell you if involvement with this board is a possibility for you.
You should also consider how the financial requirements or expectations for board members fit into your philanthropic priorities. Unlike large organizations in major cities throughout the country, the majority of nonprofits in the Corridor do not have a minimum donation requirement for their board members. They do expect board members to be donors, but may not provide many details on the level of those expectations. Discovering the typical donation range or the total amount that the organization expects to raise from its board members can help you determine if serving on the board is a good fit for you right now.
Board members are responsible for ensuring and managing adequate resources for the organization to do its work. As you consider board service, determine if you are comfortable with the current financial profile of the organization. Nonprofit organizations vary in terms of budget size and degree of sophistication in financial management. Asking to see a budget and recent financial statements can provide information about the organization’s financial health and activities.
It’s also good to learn about the organization’s strategic plan and its vision for the future. As a board member, you’ll be responsible for guiding the organization, and its current plan will help you become familiar with its challenges and priorities. If the organization does not have a current strategic plan, ask about any plans to develop one. If you join the board, this might be a key activity during your tenure.
If it hasn’t been discussed, clarify what skills and characteristics the board recruitment team sees in you and why these are important to the organization at this time. You may discover the organization would like you to serve in a capacity similar to your day-to-day paid work. This may or may not be appealing to you. You may learn that the recruitment team is making some inaccurate assumptions about your interests and experience. They may be asking you because they want you to play a role on the board—“tough cop,” “turnaround ninja,” or “keeper of the status quo”—that does not interest you. They might not be able to answer this question, which tells you something about the board’s recruitment strategies (they probably don’t have any). It’s important to find out why you’re being invited to serve on the board. Then you can decide if you can meet those role expectations or not.
When you join a board, you intensify your relationship with an organization. It’s nice to be asked to serve, but it does involve expectations, roles, and responsibilities. To live up to those, it’s important for you to learn a little bit more about the organization before you say yes. This will help you know if the relationship is a good fit or one that shouldn’t be pursued.
A version of this post first appeared in the Corridor Business Journal.