Six Issues to Address Before Serving on a Non-Profit Board


sekulic-Vetta-Getty ImagesAt the start of the year, many people begin new terms as not-for-profit board members. It’s exciting to start working with an organization whose mission is close to your heart. And it can be helpful to your development of managerial and leadership skills. However, it’s critical that your expectations be aligned with those of the organization. Ideally, these expectations should be set before your term begins, but it’s never too late to clear the air.

Here are some issues to discuss before or during your orientation with the board:

1. What is the mission of the organization? How has it developed over time?

You may think you understand the non-profit’s mission because of how it presents itself to the community. Sometimes, however, the formal mission differs from what the organization actually does. Or over time, the organization has taken on activities that are only tangentially related to its mission.

For example, a hospital that has its roots in providing healthcare to the indigent might start offering wellness or fitness programs. These might be important for improving community health, but it might be that too many of the hospital’s resources are being pulled away from basic healthcare services.

It is critical that a non-profit remain relevant to its community and customers. But it’s also important that it not develop “mission creep” or move beyond what its governing documents permit. Know what the organization’s by-laws and mission statement say.

2. What measures of success does the organization use?

Part of the Board’s role is to articulate the success measures for the organization. But you should know how the non-profit has traditionally measured its performance. Is it number of people served? Donations raised? Quality of service and accolades from clients? All of these may play some role in the success of the organization, but know what the staff considers its performance measures.

Then, during board meetings, frame your questions and advice in terms of how to improve the organization’s performance toward its success measures. And, if you think something is missing, work with your fellow board members to implement new performance indicators.

3. What communications tools exist to help board members speak to the community?

As a board member, you should be an advocate for the organization in the community. Some non-profits have communications or marketing directors who are responsible for presenting the organization’s face to the community. Ask to see the marketing brochures and other tools used in these communications. Ask for talking points that the organization wants board members to make.

And if the organization faces a public relations crisis or significant internal or external changes, find out how the staff is responding, and ask whether and how they want board members to assist. You will get asked about these issues by your friends and colleagues who know you are on the board, so be sure you are prepared to help the non-profit and not hurting it.

4. What board development and/or assessment and corporate governance programs are in place?

Some organizations elect board members then let them serve for decades with little attention. These days, particularly at larger non-profits, it is important that the board have the skills necessary to advise the non-profit staff. Know how board members at your organization are assessed.

Another best practice is to have a board orientation for new board members. Ask to participate in any orientation that’s available. If no formal board orientation is in place, then ask to tour the organization’s facilities, ask for an opportunity to participate in the non-profit’s activities in a meaningful way (or at least observe them). Also ask for a knowledgeable board or staff member to review the recent financial history of the organization with you.

When an organization has three-year board terms, it is much like having someone in a corporate position for three years—the first year is mostly a learning experience, and the ability to contribute increases in the second and third years. Anything that shortens that learning curve benefits both the organization and you as a board member.

If a board member is not attending meetings, or is not contributing to the organization, then there should be a mechanism to replace them. Term limits are usually a good thing for both the organization and the board members. Help the organization to put in place term limits and/or an orientation program and board assessment program, if nothing is available.

5. What financial commitments does the organization expect of board members?

Some non-profits have a fundraising expectation of board members, and others seek only advice (though, of course, donations are always helpful). Know going into the position what the organization expects of you. And then meet or exceed those expectations.

Business Meeting

Flickr photo from thetaxhaven on Creative Commons

6. What else do you want me to know?

You were asked to be on the board for a reason. Ask what that reason was—was it your skill set or your perceived deep pockets or something else?

Also inquire about issues within the organization the staff want you to know. The Executive Director or CEO may want you to get involved in evaluating a particular department. The Chair of the Board may think there are issues with the staff. Have some one-on-one conversations with at least the head staff person and the board chair, if not before you begin your term, then soon after it begins.

You are a board member, act like one. It all boils down to knowing as much as you can about the organization and knowing what is expected of you.

What other questions would you add to this list?

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