In the Boardroom: Asked to Join that Board?

Asked to join a nonprofit board? Here’s what to look for in your due diligence process – before you sign on the dotted line.

In the Boardroom: Asked to Join that Board?
11 mins read

Doing your due diligence can help you be sure it’s a good fit.

Most board recruitment is relationship-based. Often a friend or colleague, already serving on a board, will recruit you to join their Community Benefit Organization (CBO) board. They’ll offer lofty visions of how your service can change the world, while simultaneously suggesting a manageable commitment.

Being asked to join a board is an honor. If asked, you are right to feel flattered. But before you agree, I suggest you engage in a thorough due diligence process to know exactly what will be expected and to determine if the organization fits.

But what type of due diligence? What should you know before deciding to join a board?

*To note, the advice offered here pertains to service on a governing board. Advisory boards offer different value to an organization, and those asked to join in that capacity have different considerations when asked to serve. Governing boards are crucial to a CBO’s success, and because of this, knowing what to expect and what’s expected is critical.

There are many ways to determine organizational fit. I respect the Simon Sinek lens of always starting with the why, so I will examine the board recruitment process using the Sinek why / how / what format from both the organizational and board perspectives. Understanding the distinct and complementary role differences between the work of the organization (operations) and the work of the board (governance) will help prospective board members make an informed choice.

Step one: Organizational perspective

Start with the why

To get a sense of the organization itself, begin by asking, “Why does this organization exist?” The answer, for most CBOs, is that organizations exists to change the world. Literally. When done well, our work transforms individual lives, families, and communities. Such impact is traditionally called our mission or purpose.

So how does a CBO best articulate its mission? Unfortunately, many confuse mission with programs, and although programs are vitally important, they are not mission. Mission is not about what we do, but rather the difference that our actions make. Programs offer a means to assure certain individuals receive a life changing benefit, but they are the means to the end, not the end itself.

The expression of the recipients of our service and the results they achieve (life changing benefit) create the why for every CBO. To be a board member for a CBO, it makes great sense that you have a passion for the recipients and results that CBO is working to achieve.

That passion should not be for the programs, but rather for their intended results. Programs will and must change over time based on a wide variety of factors, but a well-articulated results-based mission will endure.

Being passionate about the mission is the best way to steward the organization through whatever change may come. It forms the bedrock of service commitment.

After the why, then ask, how?

Beginning with the mission is a critical first step in understanding how you might serve as a member of the board. Once you know the why, you can find the how. Mark Cuban of Shark Tank fame talks about a secret sauce. Perhaps a CBO’s how answers the question, “What is our secret sauce?”

For most CBOs, the secret sauce is a combination of mission, strategy and values. Strategy is the intentional long-term direction the CBO uses as an advantage in allocating resources to fulfill the mission promise.

For example: Imagine two food pantry organizations. Group A defines mission success as the number of meals fed or pounds of food product given to recipients. This represents a program-based articulation of “what we do”.

Group B defines mission success as their ability to shorten the line of those in need by connecting individuals to appropriate employment and job training programs, and therefore offers a results-based articulation of the difference the organization makes.

While the two groups have a nearly identical mandate for changing the world, their strategies are very different.

So what if food pantry C wanted to engage both strategies simultaneously? The board’s role in this lies in deciding how available resources are dedicated to the how in order to best support the why. (For example 25 percent of discretionary program funding toward strategy A and 75 percent of discretionary program funding toward strategy B.) That prioritization then creates that CBO’s secret sauce.

Don’t forget to define what

Knowing the why and how is only part of the puzzle. It’s essential to find out the what as well. That’s most easily discovered through learning what operational programs an organization does to fulfill its mission.

Some questions associated with this might be:

  • What does the organization do? This might be a list of key programs intended to fulfill the mission.
  • What resources are needed to support the key programs and how are those obtained?
  • What regulations exist to monitor the work?
  • What measurable outcomes does the CBO generate?
  • What determines whether the organization is accomplishing results that justify ROI?
  • What does the organization still want to accomplish?

What questions on an organizational level determine resources, competency, methodology, and milestones that will assist in better understanding the needs and goals of a CBO?

Step two: Board of Directors perspective

Why is there a board?

Board service is typically designed to be the expression of owners’ wishes. As a not-for-profit, who owns a CBO? While there are no owners in a legal sense, the broader community is likely the owner from a moral perspective. Given this, the board has a primary responsibility of representing the broader community and making decisions based on what is best for the organization.

Another way to think about this primary role is that true governance represents the community one-step-down. Board members act as the stewards for the collective. A strong board understands this, and makes that understanding clear through a formal written policy statement which includes a job description for the board as a group before breaking down roles on an individual level.

This keeps the focus where it belongs, on the board members as guardians of the community and stewards for the CBO. Be wary of ever accepting any position without a formal and well thought out list of key duties and responsibilities.

How will they govern?

In addition to articulating its own group responsibility, prospective members should ask if the board has developed a Board Policy Manual (BPM). A BPM provides a set of basic value statements or policies to guide board and staff decision making. The BPM should be reviewed regularly, updated as needed, and be a central repository for all board value-driven mandates.

To understand how, other questions to ask include:

  • How do policies reflect the concept that the board delegates and holds the Executive Director / CEO (ED) responsible and accountable for operational control and results?
  • How do we evaluate and compensate the ED?
  • How does the board do its governing work as a whole and through the use of committees?
  • How does the board resist the temptation to mandate staff-level advisory committees?
  • How does the board set goals for the organization and for itself, and how does it keep itself accountable?
  • How does the board invest in its own success? Is there a commitment to ongoing board governance training, as well as organizational learning experiences?

Getting answers helps define how board members will participate in the governance process.

What are the details?

Further inquiries help determine:

  • What does the board define as its own work outputs?
  • Are board meetings an opportunity for the board to do the boards work rather than the board doing the staffs’ work?
  • What is the time expectation for individual directors relative to board and committee meetings?
  • What is the fundraising expectation for directors?
  • What is the protocol for the orientation and training for new directors?
  • What are the limits on director’s terms?
  • What kind of protections are offered: Does the group carry appropriate insurance, including Directors and Officers liability insurance and at what level?
  • What evidence exists that shows the board has been effective ? What steps does the board actively take to fulfill its duties?
  • What does documentation reveal? Look for skeletons in the closet by reviewing recent audits and IRS form 990. And while you are at it, take a look at the most recent versions of strategic and operating plans.

The what here helps determine the specific experience of serving within an organization. If answers to these questions aren’t satisfactory, the daily experience of being a board member will likely be a disappointing one.

Are you ready for the journey?

If you are a type A personality who likes to personally drive initiatives, please stay away from the board and find another way to advance a mission you feel passionate about. Highly skilled people who don’t play well with others (and you know who you are) are not a good match to serve in a peer group decision making cohort like a CBO board. Belief in the wisdom of the group decision making process is a mandatory requirement for effective board service.

Governance, like so many things, is more a journey than a destination. It is highly likely that you will never be recruited to a board where all of the above elements are understood and established practices are in-place. I suggest you remain open to joining any board that is on this journey and who answers enough of the why/how/what to keep you excited about the route.

Now, go change the world ……….happy governing!

About the Author

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Ron Kratofil has served as president of Goodwill Industries in Lancaster, Pa. since 1991. He retired from that post in July of this year. He is a member of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Board, the Rotary Club of Lancaster, and is the director of William Penn Human Services. He is also a facilitator for Leadership Lancaster Board Leadership Academy.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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