5 Questions to Ask Before You Join a Board

Join a board. Please. Nonprofits everywhere are desperate for people like you.

There are great reasons to join a board.

But as much as I want you to raise your hand and jump onto the playing field, and I really want you to do just that, I also have to recognize that sometimes people have bad board experiences.

And we certainly want to avoid that.

So before you join a board, how can you know what you’re getting yourself into? Are there questions you can ask that will help you figure it out before you say yes? You bet there are!

Here are five really good ones.

SETTING THE SCENE

It goes something like this. Cindy is a friend of yours and is on the board of a nonprofit. She was asked the following question at a board meeting: “Do you know anyone who would make a good board member?”

Your name came to mind and she hands your name to the Nominations Committee as a prospect. Marge, who runs the committee, calls you. “Would you be interested in talking about the possibility of board service?”

You’ve never been on a board before, but the thought has crossed your mind. So you agree to have coffee to discuss the opportunity.

Marge is quite lovely. It is clear that she sees her job as selling you. Vetting you is risky business. Why? Her success metric: butts in seats. Cindy vouched for you. Isn’t that enough vetting?

Uh. No. If you sip your latte while Marge talks, if Marge does not ask you any questions, well you’ve gotta wonder.

Strike that. You probably want to walk away (please email your friend after and debrief on the experience so the process can be improved).

There are a whole host of questions that should be asked of you (and any potential board member) once you have expressed passion for the mission and interest in being involved. Please, I beg you, share this list with everyone on the board who is involved with outward-facing recruiting.

OK, so let’s assume the conversation goes really well. You really do like this organization and Marge asks some terrific questions. You are interested.

Now it’s your turn. What questions should YOU ask her?

IS THIS THE RIGHT FIRST QUESTION TO ASK?

When was the last time this organization sweated payroll?”

Let’s say that Marge tells you about 2 months ago and explains why. The answer is not wildly strategic about how they plan to move forward.

Do you run screaming from this financially troubled organization?

NO!!! Please don’t run away. Financially troubled organizations need really great board members. And you just be one of them. You want to be of service, right?

Learn and assess in this conversation. Can you be a part of the solution? What skills and attributes would you bring to the conference table that could turn the ship around / patch the leak in the boat / <insert other sailing vessel metaphor here>?

Do you know how many Executive Directors have said to me, “Oh I can’t recruit her to this board. Our board is a mess and she won’t last more than one meeting.”

If that happens, it’s because the interview wasn’t thoughtful. You didn’t present board service as an opportunity to be part of the solution, to be a leader in a ‘turnaround’ organization. And the prospect did not learn and assess their potential contribution in that context.

So let’s get it right shall we? Nominations committees must be forthcoming and actually vet the candidate.

And board members need to ask a few good questions of their own.

5 QUESTIONS BOARD CANDIDATES SHOULD ASK

1. Why me?

Here you are looking to understand if this board is being built with some degree of intention. What do they think you bring to the table?

2. Ask a few targeted financial questions.

No need to ask for all financials. You want to see how facile the nominating committee is about the numbers to see if the board has any degree of financial acumen (of if they punt to the treasurer). Try one of these:

  • When (if you can remember) was the last time the organization sweated payroll?
  • Do you have any kind of cash reserve?

3. How will I be supported in reaching my fundraising obligation?

In this question, you want to hear about the staff support, but also about the board fundraising committee (if there is one). Does the organization see fundraising as a team sport?

4. Can you characterize the relationship between the board and the E.D.?

Be sure to toss in a question about whether the E.D. is formally evaluated by the board each year.

5. If there is one thing you would change about the current board, what would it be and why?

If they answer with something cheeky like “I’d add someone like you,” push harder.

While I have no shortage of questions you could ask (Do you have a strategic plan…? Is the board excited about it…? What are board meetings like / can you describe the best board meeting you have had recently…? Does everyone on the board give…?) these five questions will do the trick.

AND WHAT IS THE TRICK?

You would not be sitting with this board recruitment committee member if you were not passionate about the organization (or you shouldn’t be). You are using these questions to assess. And let me elaborate. You are not assessing the condition of the board per se – “if this board has its act together I could join”.

Rather, you are trying to ascertain the condition of the board to best understand the contribution you can uniquely make.

Maybe you have been on prior boards that helped dig an organization out of a ditch. Maybe this organization is in one and you are uniquely suited to help. Maybe there is no strategic plan and they know they need one and that’s your thing. Maybe they need to take a more formal approach to E.D. performance evaluation and you are a pretty darned good manager.

The reality? Most boards don’t have their act together. Not entirely. Passionate volunteers with day jobs do their very best, but it is almost always imperfect.

A board interview allows you the opportunity to assess these imperfections and how your skills, experience, competencies, and attributes can best be utilized to tackle one or more of them.

Arriving to a board with a clear sense of where it is on the path from ‘messy’ to ‘thriving’ will allow you to find your role and gain clarity about the unique contribution you can make to an organization that makes your heart sing.

YOUR TURN

Have you ever served on a board? Or interviewed board candidates? What are the best questions you’ve asked or heard? Let us know in the comments below.

And go join a board!