By Gerry Czarnecki
If you asked to join a nonprofit board, I suggest that you pause first. Since virtually every C-suite executive, high net worth individual or person of influence in the community will be asked to join a nonprofit board, it’s critical that you first ask yourself some tough questions in order to make the right decision. Your honesty is important to the organization and to you personally.
Start by asking yourself, then the board members or executive director, these key questions:
1. Does joining the board mainly feed your ego? Be honest with yourself. Next ask specific questions about your duties and expectations. Once you better understand what you’re getting into, ask yourself if you truly want to do that much work?
2. Why do they really want you on the board? The answer matters to them and you. Often, the primary reason is that you represent funding. Either you have money to give personally or you have control of an organizational process to give away money. Nonprofits need funds. They must add board members who can write big checks. If that’s the primary reason, decide if you’re comfortable writing that check yourself or are willing to influence your organization to write it.
3. That question inevitably leads to the big picture question: Does the vision and mission of the organization connect with your passion or your organization’s focus on charitable engagement and giving? Without mission passion, board work can quickly get overwhelming. (Yes, board work. If you’re on a board, writing checks is not where it ends. You’ll be expected to contribute time, intellectual insights and energy to the cause.)
4. You must know if this is a fiduciary board or advisory in nature? It matters significantly. A fiduciary board carries governance responsibilities, which is different from simply meeting, getting updates, giving advice, then leaving. As a fiduciary, you are responsible for making business and legal decisions and you’re accountable for them. An advisory role definitely carries less accountability, and often less stress.
5. Now ask about other board members. Learn who they are. Determine if they’re people with whom you can be comfortable working and try to get a sense of the group culture. It’s painful to join a board, then find out later that you’re in a dysfunctional culture or you simply don’t identify or connect with the other members.
6. Ask about the financial condition of the enterprise. The Form 990 (a nonprofit equivalent of a tax return) is readily available publicly from the IRS website. Find out how solvent the organization is. Learn what resources are available and its funding sources. Many nonprofits do great work, but funding is a constant struggle. That should not stop you from getting involved, but it helps you know how much work will be required to help the organization stabilize.
While it’s certain that a key board responsibility is funding, there’s much more to being a strong board member than writing checks. Joining for the wrong reasons, or ignoring the answers to these key questions, can lead to misery for you and the organization.
Gerry Czarnecki is founder and chairman of the nonprofit National Leadership Institute (nationalleadershipinstitute.org), which helps boards of nonprofit organizations become strategic assets to the leadership team. His extensive background as a C-suite executive and CEO is coupled with current board leadership of corporate and nonprofit organizations. He is also chairman and CEO of the Deltennium Group. Contact him at 561.293.3726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.