Questions to Ask Before Joining a Non-Profit Board

by Eric S. Taylor, CPA, CGFM, Audit Partner

Posted on November 29, 2018

Being asked to join a non-profit Board of Directors can be an honor and a big responsibility.  If asked to join a Board for a non-profit organization, it is important for a potential candidate to ask the organization and oneself questions in order to get an idea if joining the Board is a good decision.

There are many different questions that can be asked about many different topics about the organization. Some of the topics in which to ask questions include:

  • The organization’s mission,
  • Expectations of the Board members,
  • The financial condition of the organization,
  • Future goals of the organization,
  • Management/Staff of the organization, and
  • Individual Benefits to and from the organization.

Asking questions about the organization’s mission is important when deciding whether or not to join its Board.

  • What is the organization’s mission? There should be a mission statement that clearly explains whom the organization serves and what it intends to do for them.
  • How do the organization’s programs support the mission? These programs should relate to the mission in order to accomplish its purpose. Ask to observe the programs in action to make sure they support the mission.
  • Does the organization’s mission align with my personal values? If the mission goes against one’s personal values, it could be a potentially negative experience.  If such a conflict exists, it is wise to decline the opportunity to serve on the Board.
  • Do I have a passion for the organization’s mission? If one is passionate for the mission, it could be quite inspiring and rewarding to help accomplish such a mission.

Having a full understanding of an organization’s mission and having a strong positive feeling toward supporting that mission is important before choosing to serve on a Board.

Serving on a Board can be quite a commitment for an individual.  Obtaining a clear understanding of the expectations of the Board Members, helps in assessing if you will have the necessary time and resources to commit to serve.

  • How frequently does the Board meet and what is the expected term for Board Members? Obtaining a Board meeting schedule is good to determine whether or not one can commit the time and attend the number of meetings required to fulfill the obligation.  One should reasonably be expected to attend almost all of the meetings scheduled throughout the term of the membership.  At least 80% is a realistic number.
  • What are the responsibilities of the Board Members? Responsibilities of Board Members should align to the Members’ strengths. Roles of each Member should be clearly defined.
  • What’s the Board’s role in fundraising and what financial commitment is expected of individual Board Members? Many non-profit organizations expect the Board Members to play an active role in fundraising and commit a certain amount of donations annually.  Gaining a clear understanding of the fundraising commitment ahead of time helps decide if an individual can or wants to make such a commitment, eliminating surprises later.
  • Are Board Members protected against liability? This is extremely important to determine whether or not a Board Member has the potential for personal loss.
  • Am I able to commit the necessary time, effort and financial contributions to meet the organization’s expectations of a Board member? It is important to be honest about whether or not you are able to commit to serve on a Board and meet the set expectations.

Another area to gain an understanding and ask questions about relates to the financial condition of the organization. 

  • Is the organization financially sound and can I see the organization’s current budget, and the most recent financial statements and Form 990? Financial documents are obviously useful tools in determining whether or not an entity appears financially sound. Being able to read and understand these documents is very important in gaining an understanding of the financial condition of the entity.
  • Can I see the organization’s most recent audit report? Reading and understanding an audit report is useful in finding out if there are any red flags related to the financial condition and the internal controls. In addition, these financial statements provide additional assurance to you as a potential Board member as they have been audited by an independent auditor.

Knowing the financial condition of the organization is useful in the decision making process of whether or not to accept a Board Member position. If an entity has had financial problems, some individuals might want to steer clear of joining that organization, while others find it to be a challenge to help improve its financial condition.

The future goals of the organization can tell a lot about the direction in which the organization plans to head. Knowing these goals will assist with your decision about whether or not to be involved with the organization’s future.

  • Does the organization have a strategic plan in place, and if so, is it reviewed, evaluated and modified on a regular basis? A strong organization should have a strategic plan in place outlining future goals and actions to meet those goals. Reading the strategic plan can help you determine whether or not an organization is properly planning to achieve its mission. Also, knowing the Board’s role in the strategic plan is key to understanding your potential role.
  • What are the organization’s major program and fundraising goals? These too should be included in a strategic plan, and should align with the mission of the entity.
  • Do I think the goals are realistic? If one does not feel an organization’s goals are realistic or achievable, it could be extremely frustrating to work hard and never achieve such unattainable goals.

Again, gaining an understanding of the organization’s future goals is helpful in the evaluation of the organization’s plans to achieve its mission.

Another area to gain an understanding is with the management and staff of the organization.  Knowing about the staff that will be carrying out the day-to-day duties is important.

  • Does the organization have strong management and staff? Asking for staff bios or resumes, if available, is a good way to gain insight into the qualifications of the people carrying out the day-to-day duties. Are these people qualified to effectively help move the organization toward its goals and achieve its mission?
  • How does the Board typically work with the organization’s staff? Speaking with the staff, as well as current Board members, about the dynamics of the working relationship between Board and staff can help determine if you can fit into that type of relationship.
  • Can I see the staff organization chart? Read over the staff organization chart as a tool to determine if the organization appears properly staffed with the right types and numbers of staff members.

Having a strong, well-qualified staff is very important for the success of any organization, and makes it easier for a good Board of Directors to guide the direction of the organization toward achieving its mission.

Lastly, a Board candidate should ask questions about what individual benefit there is to and from the organization.

  • Why was I asked to be a Board Member and how does the organization see me as a benefit to the Board? An organization should be able to explain why they chose a candidate and what experience or skills it feels the candidate possesses that can help the organization.
  • Do I feel my skills are a fit for this organization to help it accomplish its goals? A candidate should be honest, and determine if his or her skill set will ultimately help the organization achieve its goals and carry out its strategic plan and mission.
  • Can I benefit professionally from joining the Board? In addition to benefiting the organization, and also potentially benefiting individually by having a rewarding experience, a potential Board Member could also benefit professionally, if that is important to them. Serving on a Board can be a great opportunity for networking and referrals.

Benefiting the organization should be a win/win situation for all parties involved.

These questions are by no means an all-inclusive list, but provide a basic guideline when trying to make the important decision of joining a non-profit organization’s Board.  If asked to join a Board, a potential candidate should take the time to draft up his or her own list of questions that are personally important, and based on the answers received, make an informed decision on whether to serve or not serve with that particular non-profit organization.