From Giving to Leading: Questions to Consider Before Joining the Board

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You’ve given to the organization for years. You support the mission and admire the staff. Now, they’ve asked you to consider joining the governing board. You’re honored and intrigued, but unsure. After all, nonprofit boards have ultimate responsibility for an organization’s mission, finances, program quality, and for recruiting, supporting, and evaluating the chief executive. It’s an ethical—and legal—duty not to be taken lightly.

Should you? Whether you are being asked to join the board of an art museum, social service agency, hospice, or any other type of nonprofit, ask yourself these questions.

Are you passionate about the cause? Board service is a big commitment. It can be gratifying to see the organization’s impact on the community. But, at times, board service can be challenging or even frustrating. If you have genuine passion for the mission, you’ll have resilience for the tough times and find successes especially satisfying.

Is the role clearly defined? Is the organization stable? Ask the organization for a written description of board members’ responsibilities. The “job description” should clarify what is expected of board members in terms of time, talent, and treasure. Ask to review minutes from recent board meetings and audited financial statements, as well. These should indicate the current state of affairs.

Can you devote the time? Board service is more than attendance at meetings. It takes time to prepare for each meeting so that you can contribute to discussions and make informed decisions. Most boards also require service on a committee, which means more meetings and more preparation. There may be special events of volunteer days you’ll be expected to attend. Effective board members are highly active participants in the life of the organization.

Can you make the financial commitment? Nonprofit organizations rely on charitable contributions, and board members are asked to set an example through their personal support. Some organizations suggest a minimum gift amount from board members; others ask board members to make the cause a “philanthropic priority.” It is likely that you’ll also be asked to help fundraise.

Are you comfortable with group process? Board work is teamwork. Only the board-as-a-whole has authority for the organization; no single board member may act on his or her own. Decision-making can require time, discussion, compromise, and patience.

Once you’ve asked these questions, you can make an informed decision about serving on a nonprofit board. If you conclude that board service is for you, then you can also anticipate the benefits that come when helping a nonprofit organization realize its mission. These include:

  • New skills. Board service may provide personal and professional growth, such as financial oversight or leadership, which can have application on the job or at home.
  • Broader networks. You’ll meet people with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences who may enrich your life and introduce you to new opportunities.
  • Paying forward. Nonprofit organizations contribute to a community’s quality of life.
  • Giving back. There is mounting evidence that altruistic acts such as volunteering time and donating money provide psychological and social benefits.

There are also ample resources to help board members fulfill their commitment to an organization. For example, BoardSource (www.boardsource.org) offers a variety of tools to help boards and board members serve effectively. You can subscribe to digital newsletters such as Board Café (www.compasspoint.org/board-café-archives) or Blue Avocado (www.blueavocado.org/). Each sector also has unique support organizations ranging from the American Alliance of Museums or Americans for the Arts to the local United Way.

Nonprofit organizations exist to serve the common good, and they rely on board members to ensure to help realize this lofty goal. When you serve on a nonprofit’s board of directors, you contribute to the wellbeing of our community and earn the gratitude of those whose lives are enhanced.