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Five Questions for the New Nonprofit Board Member

IS 2015 THE YEAR YOU JOIN A NONPROFIT BOARD?  Perhaps you've been thinking that board service would be a great way to give back to your community or perhaps you've decided to give in to your best friend's pleading to join her board.  Whether you're giving back or giving in, don't waste any time in asking these five questions:

1.  Am I comfortable with group work?  

Everything you read on nonprofit governance casts it as group work: deliberation and decision-making as a team; working with and through committees; and working to consensus.  If you're the lone wolf type, preferring to tackle problems and projects on your own, you'll find group work difficult, even drudgery.  So, if you're intent on joining a board know that the group trumps the individual.  Yes, your individual skills, opinions, and talents are needed and will be welcomed (hopefully), but when it comes to execution, it is the group that will capture the flag.

2.  Where will my skills and interests best fit on the board?  

If the organization hasn't given you a good reason why you're being tapped for board service, or if you're unclear what you could bring to the table, take some time to figure this out first.  The nominating or board selection committee should have a clear vision for your participation, but in case they don't, work with them to craft one.  You need to know why you're on the board and they need to know why, too.  The last thing you want to have happen is to get pigeonholed into a committee assignment that doesn't make the best use of your skills and interests.

3.  What is my role in the organization's strategic plan?

A strategic plan is the overarching, mission-driven picture of where the organization is going.  It's the result of group work and broad buy-in.  It should drive everything from who is serving on the board to staff positions to programming.  If the organization doesn't have a written plan or has one that's no more than just a laundry list of tasks to be accomplished, take a step back and ask yourself "Do I have the skills and interest to help the organization get to a plan?"  That alone could take a year or more to accomplish.

If the organization has a strategic plan and it's a good one -- one that energizes both the organization and you -- then it's worth a conversation with the nominating or board selection committee to find where you can advance it.  

4.  What are my organization's financial expectations of me (both giving and getting)?

Many nonprofits are still reluctant to talk about money.  They don't understand that it's the 21st century and an organization can't meet its mission with just a wish and a prayer.  So, you need to know where you stand in helping to put cash in the bank.  Know that you have to give and get.  How much of each is a part of your conversation.  If you can't meet the expectation, say so -- there's valor in honesty (and usually a solution or two).

5.  How can I best help the executive director?

An important part of a board member's job is to support the executive director in doing the very best job she or he can do.  The executive director needs your knowledge and insights, needs access to your networks, needs you to show up and be counted, and needs your understanding.  You can do all of that and still maintain your oversight role.  So, don't forget to ask "How can I be of help to you today?"


Anonymous said…
I wish I'd known to ask these questions before my abortive stint on a board ending last year. I wouldn't have done it, because all five questions would have had negative answers if I'd known to ask them.
Editor said…
Here are a few more:

6. Do I have a passion for the work of this organization/institution?

7. If the organization has a very small number of staff, am I comfortable with pitching in and helping with some of the management details?

8. Am I prepared to contribute some of my knowledge from the business/professional world to the 'business' side of running this organization/institution?

9. Am I prepared eventually to take a leadership role in governance by assuming the role of board chair or chairing a board sub-committee?

10. Am I willing to assume an active role in soliciting new volunteers to work on the board when necessary?

I feel your pain, mmjustus. Organizations make a big assumption (and wrong) that the people coming on their boards instinctively know what they're all about and what will be expected. Being a good board member is a learned activity -- it's not something we're born knowing how to do.
Thanks so much for adding to the pot of questions, Dave. All good.
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