10 Good Questions Board Members Should Ask

by Joan Garry

Asking good questions is an important role of the board. How well is your board doing oveerall? Take the "Assess Your Board" Quiz now!

A friend of mine and I were chatting (cocktails were definitely involved), both of us in our post executive director days. He looked sheepish and nearly whispered “Did your board ever give you a standing ovation?” I nearly spit my gimlet out of my mouth. He continued: “I’ve always wondered if that ever happened to others but was too embarrassed to ask.”  “No,” I responded. “But I have gotten a few rounds of applause.”

Back before I entered the nonprofit world, I never once a got round of applause. And I gave some some kick ass presentations. In corporate America, you prepared not to take a bow but to take a hit. You prepared for questions – good ones, thoughtful ones, tough ones and yes, some really stupid ones.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like applause. And appreciation at board meetings is really important for staff morale. But it is my opinion that executive directors don’t often see questions as good and board members don’t often enough ask good questions. This feels especially true when it comes to the work of the organization – programs.

Maybe it would be helpful to suggest a few? Here are a few tips and 10 questions board members might consider asking at an upcoming Program Presentation.


A quick email from Board chair to E.D. that says “the Board would like a program update at the next meeting” will not cut it.  A good CEO will ask the Board Chair questions about the goals, what the board is looking for, what s/he think might be useful. A good board chair will include that in the email.


A good program presentation should not simply be a dog and pony show.  Nor should it be a reiteration of a report a board member read (or didn’t) before arriving.  It should be:

  • 1 part dog/pony (yes you want to impress your board!)
  • 1 part storytelling (the one your board member remembers and tells others)
  • 2 parts analysis  (what is working well; what needs shoring up)
  • 1 part big strategic concern that can be discussed.


Not much to add here. Just orchestrate so that you do not run out of time before questions.


I understand that program presentations are all unique depending on the organization and the services it provides. There is not a “one size fits all” model. But here are some that come to mind.

1) For the benefit of newer board members, has this been a service we have provided since our founding?  If not, when did we add and why?

2) If quantifiable, a chart that talks about the number of folks served and how that has increased / decreased over time.

3) Take it the basics. How many staff are allocated to this program and what % of our $X budget does this represent.

4) As you look from a higher vantage point, does this % feel right relative to the other work the organization does?

5) Where else do people turn to for this service?  Why is our program better?

6) What is your vision for this program?  Where would you like to see it in 5 years?

7) Tell us a bit about staffing in this area – where is it relative to 2-3 years ago?  What impact has that had?

8) How do folks know this service is available? How would you rate our marketing efforts?  What else is needed?

9) Is there a way for we as Board members to get involved that would add value to the organization or to your ability to provide these services?

10) Tell us one story that you find to be most compelling to donors.


–       Board members are ambassadors. Every question should be asked in the tone and spirit of someone who is deeply committed to the mission.  And the CEO / senior staff should feel that.

–       A presentation with no substantive questions is not a good use of time.  For either the presenter or the board.

–       A CEO should welcome these questions.  The more a board member knows, the more invested she is.  The more skin she has in the game, the more she will jump through hoops for the organization you all care so deeply about.

5 thoughts on “10 Good Questions Board Members Should Ask”

  1. This is a great column Joan- as someone who has served on several boards it is really important for board members to be engaged and that is part of the “job” of good board leadership and a strong working relationship with the CEO. The ability to ask questions needs to be built into the culture of the board

  2. As the Chair of a Board with a new hunger for greater involvement with the org, this incisive piece can help take us a long way toward where I think we want to be from step one or two which is where we are. Super article. Thanks.

  3. One thing I initiated, that probably would not work for everyone, was open budget hearings. Most annoying questions usually are fiscally related. I ran a large nonprofit with multiple departments. I held budget hearings myself along with the CFO (When I started it was a small nonprofit and I did the entire budget myself, but at this point I had trained, competent staff running large departments and preparing their own budget). I felt most questions came from a lack of knowledge, so I invited anyone from the board to attend. Of course only a handful of people did, but they gained invaluable insight, and would then themselves respond to inane questions with “you should have come to the budget hearings. That was all explained.”
    It worked really well for me, better informed board members, staff who really felt the importance of the presentation , and who believed they were making a fiscal and program commitment to both me and the board.

  4. These articles come up in my newsfeed on facebook as if they are brand new. I look for a publication date for the article. Nothing. And then I scroll down and find 4 year old comments. Really? OK, fair enough, it’s timeless content, but maybe it’s time to freshen this a bit, don’t you think?

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