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What Would Make You Turn Down an Invitation to Join a Board?

THERE'S SO MUCH WRITTEN ABOUT RECRUITING BOARD TALENT, I thought I'd spend a little time thinking about it from the prospect's point of view. Clearly, there are boards where the line is long to get on them. But what would make you turn down an invitation?

Here's a short list to get the conversation started:

You've had no prior exposure to the organization. Your immediate reaction is "did you pull my name out of a hat?" (Is that lady in the picture the head of the Nominating Committee?) Seems as though there must be a hidden agenda at work (like you're rich and once you become a board member you'll pour all your resources into the organization) or the organization is simply looking for any warm body to fill a seat.

The organization doesn't have a good reputation. There's something to be said for street cred. An organization that's floundering may be strengthened by your participation or you may find yourself sucked into a morass with all kinds of legal and financial complications. What are the clues and cues to help you figure out which it will be?

You're a former employee of the organization. You bring baggage -- good and bad. It's an awkward situation for current employees to be governed and evaluated by former employees. Former employees may make terrific subject-matter advisors, but not governors. Draw the line there.

There's no written and shared plan for the future. This is an indicator that resources could be going in many directions with little overall coordination toward an articulated endpoint. It likely means there is also little or no critical assessment tools in place to measure resource effectiveness.

The organization offers board seats as prizes. Do a great job on that fundraiser, get a board seat! Usher for 30 years, get a board seat! Perfect attendance at board meetings, get to be president! The organization's lack of a thoughtful evaluative process for building its board is a detriment (relates to #1).

Who else serves on board. A pretty good indicator of all of the above.

I'm sure there are more reasons, so share your stories!

Mom's name hat from nokapixel


Karyn R. said…
What a great post! I resigned from my first board (a dance company) because of #4. Because of my law/business background, I asked them constantly to create a strategic plan and to articulate goals. The board president was insistent on holding a fundraiser first - without any type of plan! Needless to say, it was a frustrating, confusing experience and I resign a few months later.
Unknown said…
Anne, Well said! Alice Korngold
Anonymous said…
Saw your post at, this is what I added:

Due Diligence is Needed by Potential Board Members

In addition to the six items listed by Anne Ackerson, I would add these:

1. Ask for a copy of non-profit bylaws and minutes of previous board meetings. I was startled to read in one non-profit’s bylaws that 100% of the fundraising duties were the responsibility of the Executive Director (not the board).

2. What’s the turnover been for the staff over the past 3 years? In a governance role you won’t have hands-on responsibilities but this gives you a good indication about the strength of the management team.

3. Are you comfortable with the “give or get” amount of funds that this board will expect you to raise? Even if not voiced, there’s usually an expectation and it helps to know this sooner rather than later.

Bill Huddleston
Susan C Hammond said…
I just finished this process and declined. I was being invited on to become the treasurer in 6 months. In doing my due diligence I learned that not only would I be the treasurer but I would end up being the CFO. The internal financial system was weak and they planned to launch a capital campaign soon. There was no one on staff or on the board that had a financial background. Or if they did it wasn't apparent given some of the hiccups I learned about.

As I am launching a new business I did not want to be the only financial brain and/or serve at a level below my personal standard.

I intend to post an entry on my own blog about this at and
Hi, Karyn --

Thanks for sharing your experience! I think you did the right thing by recognizing quickly that you weren't the right match for this organization (at least not at this time).

Instead of hanging on, hoping that conditions would improve, as many people do, you made the decision to resign. I'm sure it was difficult, but better to move on than continually butt heads with a board leader who clearly had another agenda.
Hi, Alice --

Thank you! And thank you for the great articles on boards and nonprofits -- I refer to them a great deal.

Hi, Bill --

Your additions are great ones for "the list" -- they're very specific indicators of organizational health, don't you think?

Hi, Susan --

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. How did you go about declining and what was the organization's reaction? (That's a question for you, as well, Karyn.)

How well do you think organizations can learn from board members who resign and recruits who decline?

Susan C Hammond said…
I had a long discussion with ED about my reasons and what I thought needed to be changed. He asked that I summarize them in writing which I agreed to do and is planning to bring them to the board. It truly seems a case of they don't know what they don't know.


I think it's really interesting that your conversation was with the ED and not the board president or chair of the Nominating/Board Development Committee.

Let's hope the ED can effectively communicate your concerns!

Susan C Hammond said…
I thought the same thing. Another consideration in ones due diligence is who is handling the recruitment.

Lisbeth Cort said…
Interesting twist on board building issues. I'd add another reason for a turn down - described in a post I wrote today on my blog

Thanks for your post.
Hi, Lisbeth --

Just read your blog post and totally agree that the "I"/"we" mentality is another red flag to add to the list of why a person might turn down an invitation to join a board.

Unknown said…
Excellent post! I would advise all board members - current and prospective to read this thoroughly. Twice.
Anne's insight is the basis to the development of a healthy, productive, happy and successful Board.
Thanks, Sharlene! I'm glad you found this post useful!!

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