Questions New Board Members Should Ask Themselves
By Bill Hoffman
After being appointed to a nonprofit board, it is not uncommon for new directors to ask themselves how they are going to make their mark and contribute to the organization.
New board members are excited, because they have a passion for the organizations mission and have heard great things about it. But after the warm glow cools down a little, they realize the pressure is on. They should ask the executive director or board chair these five questions and let the answers guide them to success.
1. What am I supposed to be doing?
Although you would think the answer to this question is obvious, its actually a pretty good thing to get some clarification on. Are the expectations just for you to show up at board meetings and share your wisdom? Theres nothing wrong with that, but most boards ask much more of their members. Are you also expected to put in extra hours attending community meetings and fundraisers, selling tickets to fundraisers, helping with fundraising outreach, volunteering in programs, etc.? And what are the attendance expectations for those board meetings? Ive seen cases where board members didnt realize the bylaws set minimum attendance requirements to remain on the board.
There may be written expectations for board members, but a conversation about what you uniquely bring to the board is equally valuable. You should also take note if the answer you got to What am I supposed to be doing? is nebulous or shows a lack of focus or low expectations. Be wary of low expectations; they may indicate the organization doesnt know how to engage and use volunteers effectively.
2. How can I help with your fundraising when I don't do fundraising?
One of a board members key responsibilities should be to help bring resources into the organization. Although some board members may be knowledgeable about and perfectly comfortable with this task, most have no background in it and are decidedly uncomfortable with it. Volunteers often think of fundraising as getting in front of someone and doing the ask for money, which can be a very difficult conversation. But there are other ways to help bring in resources, such as:
3. I'm not an accountant; how do I know if the finances are OK?
- Identifying prospects. If youre a typical board member, you are well connected in the community and can identify individuals, foundations, or companies who have a passion for your organizations mission. Starting with who might support the cause is important.
- Strategizing. After identifying who might be willing to support the organization, you can help determine about the best way to approach them. Fundraising usually involves multiple steps and meetingsan organization rarely goes straight to the ask. Knowing the best approach to a potential donor is crucial, and someone who knows the prospectyouis going to be valuable in thinking through the process.
- Advice visits. Everyone likes being asked what he or she thinks. You can contribute to the organizations fundraising efforts by setting up an informal meeting to ask for advice from the prospects youve identified. It may lead to direct funding or could lead to new ideas or prospects.
- Thanking. Your personal thank-you call or handwritten note will go a long way in showing a donor just how much he or she is appreciated. Every board member, no matter how uncomfortable with other aspects of fundraising, can be part of the thanking team.
Its true that as a board member, you have a fiduciary responsibility for the organization. You and your fellow board members are the stewards of the organizations resources and must provide oversight as to how they are used to fulfill the organizations mission.
Its also true that nonprofit financials can be intimidating to someone without a financial or management background. If the organization is following best practices, your executive director will do a financial orientation and brief you on the reports you should expect.
There are other ways to increase your comfort level.
4. How can I be an ambassador for the organization if I'm not a public speaker?
- Make sure the board treasurer or finance committee chair has a financial background, is familiar with nonprofit bookkeeping, and is scrutinizing the monthly financials. If the experts are comfortable, you should feel more comfortable.
- Make sure the board sees all financial audit reports, and that the auditors report directly to the board. Not every nonprofit has an annual audit, but if yours does, it should be performed by an independent audit firm that reports directly to the board, or at least the finance or audit committee. Even you are not directly involved in the audit process,
you should review the report and make sure you dont have questions.
- Make sure the board sees and approves the organizations Form 990 each year before its filed with the IRS. In addition to providing a chance to review the finances reported on the form, this step allows board members to see how the organization is being positioned to the public, as the 990 is widely distributed and read.
Some of the most effective venues for sharing your passion for the organization, its mission, and its programs are the informal opportunities you have interacting in the community. These interactions dont take any public speaking skill, but they send a powerful message. Make sure staff has helped you develop a two-minute elevator speech so you hit on the highlights and are comfortable that youre giving the right information. Then watch as eyes light up when you share your passion for the organization.
Because you are an unpaid volunteer, you have a huge impact when you share how you feel about the organization. People know that you are laying your reputation on the line, and that youre not being paid to tout the organization. You volunteer status increases the effect your words have on your listeners. Its as if youre using a megaphone to share your passion.
5. Are there personal financial expectations of me?
Although this question should have been clarified before you joined the board, its surprising how often it is not directly addressed. Many nonprofits require personal donations from board members, sometimes with a minimum amount. It makes sense that if a prospect is going to donate to the nonprofit, the volunteers closest to it have invested in the organization first. In fact, this is often a question on grant applicationsthat box of 100% board giving must be checked before the grant application will be considered.
A board will often recruit high-level representation from a major employer. There should be a policy on whether the corporate gift from that organization fulfills that board members personal requirement, or if the individual must give. The same should be clear for heads of foundations.
Bill Hoffman is principal of Bill Hoffman & Associates, LLC, a Tampa-based consulting firm with national-level independent sector expertise in educational engagement strategies, on profit leadership transitions, and organizational and board development. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.