Vetting Your Next Nonprofit Board Seat
Experience as a nonprofit board member can be incredibly satisfying, regardless of experience level. It can offer a sense of purpose, provide the opportunity to give back, and expand your network. But to have that experience, you must prepare carefully and interview smartly.
The first step is self-reflection. What causes stir your passion? Helping kids who have suffered abuse? Supporting education? Ensuring communities have the best health care? Feeding those who are hungry? Uplifting the arts? You want to feel continuously connected to and inspired by the cause. Board service has its challenges and disappointments, and your love of the cause will carry you through the difficult times with a sense of optimism. What feels right and good? What resonates? What excites you?
Next, think about the characteristics of the organization that would appeal to you. Nonprofits range from complex organizations, such as universities and healthcare systems with highly structured governance and committees, to large national organizations with chapters or subsidiaries, such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Clubs of America, to prominent community organizations—symphonies, museums, and performance centers—to small, community-based entities, such as animal shelters, homeless shelters, food pantries, and theater companies. The boards of these various institutions function differently, and each offers distinct opportunities, so think about the experience you want to have. Though the large, prominent institutions have well-known, highly successful individuals serving on their boards, securing a seat on these boards usually requires a certain set of credentials and achievements—and a willingness to part with a hefty annual gift in the five-figure range and beyond. If that is your passion, pursue it, but plan a strategy for the long game and, if you’re new to board service, cut your teeth on a more accessible board. The opportunities are vast, so do your homework and figure out where you want to fit in.
Do Your Research
Thoroughly investigate every organization that attracts your interest and has open board seats. The best place to start is with Internal Revenue Service Form 990, which nearly every nonprofit must file annually. If it is not available on the organization’s website, the easiest place to find the completed form is at guidestar.org. The first page of the 990 provides key organizational information at a glance, including the size of the board, the number of staff, company mission, fundraising and earned revenue, assets, and liabilities. The form offers almost everything you want to know about the functioning of the organization, including the names of every board member.
Once you have used this information to narrow down your options, do a deep dive into the websites and social media of the organizations that interest you. Is the website information consistent with Form 990? Is it up to date? Are the core values, vision, and mission easy to find and understand? Does what you read give you a sense that the nonprofit is well organized and purposeful? When you look at the social media posts, do they tell a story? Do they include calls to action? Are there opportunities for people in the community to be involved? Once you’re done with your deep dive, the critical question is: am I drawn to the organization and its work?
Once you complete the hard research, it is important to explore the organizations’ soft sides. What is the reputation of your top candidates? For those that reside in your community, ask friends and colleagues their opinions of the organizations. If they put on events, go to a few and talk to the people in attendance. If you know any of the board members, contact them to ask about their experiences. Ask to talk to someone at a community foundation who is familiar with the nonprofit landscape, explain that you are looking to serve on a board, and engage in a conversation about the organizations that interest you. Though this individual will likely be circumspect, there is a lot of information that you can garner by asking the right questions: Which organizations does the foundation fund? (You can also find this on the foundation’s website or annual report.) Which stand out and are doing transformative work for the community? Which have great management teams and great board education programs?
The point of this work is to find the right fit. Once you are serving on a board, you want to have confidence that you’ve picked the right one: you love what the organization does, you know they are doing good work, and when you look around the boardroom, you feel at home.
So, you’ve done your research and by leveraging professional connections with executives, corporate directors, and recruiters have been given the opportunity to interview for a board role. This is the final critical step—that is, you interviewing the board, not so much them interviewing you. Have they done their homework?
An important first line of inquiry is how the board and organization understand their vision and mission. You could ask questions such as: How do you describe your cause? How would you describe the organization’s vision for the future? What will be different or better in the lives of those you serve when you succeed? What are some examples of the impact you have on the community?
You also want to gain clarity about what the organization expects from its board members. Here you might ask: What do you expect from board members in terms of duties and charitable gift responsibilities? Do you have terms of service and term limits? How often does the board meet? What is the committee structure? Close this line of questioning with the most important query: what do you expect me to bring to the board? This question is important because you want to discover if the organization knows you and values what you bring, or if it is just looking for another warm body and some cash.
During the interview, keep an eye out for the following red flags:
- The interview process is disorganized.
- The interviewers are unable to articulate the organization’s cause, mission, vision, and impact.
- There are no documents outlining board member expectations.
- There is no onboarding process.
- There are no terms of service.
- The interviewers do not express interest in getting to know you.
- The interviewers want to appoint you because of your profession or wealth, rather than your competencies, character, and connections.
Fulfilling Your New Role
Once you’ve picked the right organization for you, make your case—why you will make a good board member and what you will contribute. Your research and interview should provide information regarding what the board needs. Speak directly to these needs.
After joining the board, how do you best take advantage of this opportunity? Get up to speed quickly on pertinent governance issues. Seek out seasoned board members you would like to get to know and ask for their advice and perspectives. Read all meeting materials in advance and contact the chair or CEO to clarify questions or concerns. Read the bylaws, be actively engaged, attend all the meetings, serve on a committee, be deliberative, listen actively, and ask good questions. Be sure to find time to have casual conversations outside of meetings with those members you want to get to know.
By pursuing nonprofit board service in a thoughtful manner, not only will you learn a lot and be able to make significant contributions to an organization’s governance, but you will also be noticed. Deep, lasting, trusting relationships are developed when people serve together on a board. If you step up to the challenge, opportunities will present themselves for you to expand your network and build your reputation. As you develop your governance expertise, new, more prominent governance opportunities will appear.