By Guest Writer Alexandra Peters boardseye.com
You’ve supported the work of a non-profit organization and know several people on the board. One of them calls and introduces herself as the Chair of the Governance committee. She asks you to consider joining the board.
Join the board? You’re flattered but a little uneasy. What will they expect of you? What is involved in being on this particular board? What should you ask them?
Of course your primary interest will be in the work of the organization. You’ll want to evaluate their mission, look at their website, check out their annual report, and review their 990 tax return if it is available. But how will you ask what is expected of YOU?
The following are the questions that you should ask before you take this leap. And by the way, if they assure you that not much will be expected of you, think twice. A board that doesn’t expect much of its members is a board that isn’t getting anything done.
WHAT WILL BE EXPECTED OF ME IF I JOIN THIS BOARD?
How much time will it take?:
- How often does the board meet? Where? For how long? Time commitments vary from board to board – with two to ten meetings per year, each lasting from two hours to all day.
- Are board members expected to serve on committees? If so, this is an additional time commitment. Ask how often committees meet. Increasingly, committee time includes participation on conference calls outside of meetings.
- What sort of volunteer effort is expected from each board member, if any? Some boards have a clear volunteer requirement. Some discourage board volunteers. Newer, hands-on organization will just plain need a lot of your help.
- Is there a board retreat? Typically boards meet for one day every year, sometimes a whole weekend.
- How long would I be on the board? Although a first term is typically from one year to three years, the average length of board service is closer to 6 years.
- How much information is sent out to board members?
- How much time do you expect a board member to commit to ‘keep up’ every month?
- Are there events that board members are expected to attend? Benefits, panel discussions, openings, performances, graduations, etc.
What is the structure of the board?
- How big is the board and who is on it? Ask about age and gender. Ask about the amount of social interaction on the board. Ask about socioeconomic backgrounds.Will you be comfortable with this group?
- Does the organization have Directors and Officers Liability Insurance? Every board should. If they don’t, ask why. You should be protected if you are serving responsibly and in good faith.
- Will they send you a copy of the organization’s ByLaws? This request might surprise them – but these are the “rules” for this board, and you should have a look at them before you agree to join.
- Is the IRS form 990 available? Where can I see it? Because it is publicly available, every board member should know all about what is on the 990 and where it can be found. Many boards put it right on their website. You can also find it on www.Guidestar.com. But let them tell you that.
- Does the organization have an independent auditor? It is becoming the accepted standard for all boards to retain a professional auditor who reviews the books. This professional reports to the board, not the CEO. Some small boards decide that they cannot afford an auditor. If they don’t pay for it, ask how they handle financial oversight.
- Do board members sign a ‘conflict-of-interest’ form annually? They absolutely should.
What financial commitment is expected? Philanthropy and fundraising:
- Is there a specific expectation for an annual financial contribution from each board member? Most organizations expect a contribution – a few tell you what the $ amount should be. This answer tells you a lot about how this board sees its role and what they want from you.
- What is expected of a board member in terms of fundraising? Solicit funds, attend fundraising events, identify donors, cultivate donors – you should expect to be involved in some way or other – good board members are activists and advocates.
- Are there specific events in which board members are expected to participate? Often there is a dinner or an event where board members are expected to “take” a table, or at least show up.
- What kind of orientation and education is given to board members? How does the organization educate board members about best practices for governance on boards and expectations for each member?
- How will board members continue to learn about the organization? Will board members get regular information, presentations, tours, opportunities to visit and see the work of the agency?
- How do board members interact with the CEO and the staff? Ideally, there will be an initial introduction and information session, but what happens after that?
About my role:
- Is there any specific individual effort the board will expect of you? Is the organization looking for you to help it in specific ways (with your professional skills) or to perform a special function? Find out now!
And of course, if you’re the board member inviting a new person onto your board, you should be able to answer all these questions too!
Alexandra Peters is a writer, educator, psychologist, and board consultant. She has been engaged with nonprofit organizations for 30 years, and currently works with boards on issues of governance and board leadership. Alexandra holds an MA in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University, and has served on 13 boards, 5 of which she Chaired. She brings to her work the perspective of a highly trained board member: a first-hand understanding of the psychology, dynamics and structure of boards and nonprofit leadership.