Only the Blind get Blindsided on Boards

Anyone who’s involved with the nonprofit sector has heard of some scandals. Who needs reality T.V. in our field when we have the excitement of unfortunate reality? We all remember the shocking stories of Executive Directors (E.D’s) who use the company jet for personal trips–which actually seems to be a fairly common weakness among E.D’s . It’s the stuff of breaking news, and we always ask, “Where was the Board in all this?” The Board. You know, the people who bear the fiduciary responsibility of the organization?

This is not to scare you away from holding a position on a Board. What we NEED is responsible, engaged citizens to make a difference (and there is little service that can be more rewarding than seeing that difference come to fruition because of your involvement). What we DON’T need are people who fail to understand the actual weight of that responsibility.

To keep organizations from being stuck with lackluster board members, and to keep irresponsible people from having to answer for big mistakes, we’re introducing 10 questions that should be asked prior to joining a Board.

These are adapted from Amy Towery’s article “Ten Questions to Ask Before Committing to Serve on a Nonprofit Board.” We’ve revised these questions from the 2012 November/December issue of Advancing Philanthropy with a little PiP flare.

Look in the mirror, and ask these questions…

1) Do I really even care?

If this is about having your name appear on an organization’s letterhead, it might be worth saying no. Even if you aren’t touched by the idea of constituents suffering because you are taking a seat that could be filled by an active leader, think of yourself. Your name will be next to the organization on the letterhead…and in the news if something terrible happens. If you can’t be engaged enough to detect something fishy happening, then you’ll be brought down with the ship.

If you aren’t willing to give both your time and your money, leave the space for someone who is willing to give the organization that needed community leadership and partnership. If you’re passionate–and that passion meets the right program–lives can forever be changed.

2) Am I only willing to serve because someone told me I won’t actually have to do anything?

If you don’t actually have the time to serve on a Board, this can seem like a beautiful solution! You get to be connected to a good cause without having to make any sacrifices. Only you can’t change one thing: the liability you personally carry. Sure, they can dismiss you from having to attend meetings and approve decisions. But no, they can’t dismiss you from having to answer for the negligent things that happen. You still have to do something: BE RESPONSIBLE! So unless you’re prepared to do so, it’s wise to say no.

3) Is this organization more than a pretty pamphlet?

I’ll tell you this much, none of the E.D’s who flew the private jets put that in their collateral. You have to look into the organization. Does it deliver on the changes that it claims to make? If there is no evidence that they accomplish the good that they say they do, that’s probably evidence to say no! If you’re going to commit your time and energy, it’s a good idea to be sure that it will make a difference.

Look staff members in the eye, and ask these questions…

4) Is this a financial fault-line?

No one wants to stand on shaky ground. You want to ask about the fiscal stability of the organization you are considering. And if you’re willing to join an organization that’s potentially going under, you should at least know where the organization financially stands.

When the staff answers, it’s worth it to do a little research of your own. If they’ve filled out an IRS Form 990, then you can look it up for free. Towery provides this website. Corroborate their answers and make a fully informed decision.

5) Is your organization’s popularity about more than Facebook likes?

Do real people (i.e. donors, constituents or clients) like what you do here? Let them list examples so that you can feel assured that this is a credible organization making a genuine impact. Organizations who don’t know what affect they have or how people feel about it, probably don’t know enough for you to risk your own liability.

6) I know this place isn’t perfect, so what would you suggest changing

It isn’t bad for staff members to see that there are areas where potential for growth exists. If, however, they hate the supervisors, the clients, the culture and everything else, that could be your exit sign. You want an honest answer that reflects actual imperfection, but that shows there are still positive things about the organization.

Go to the seat you might fill, and ask people who have already sat there to answer these questions…

7) Is that a comfortable seat?

They don’t have to love everything that’s ever happened in the board room, but they should have had a good experience overall. If they feel unengaged, or if they fall asleep every meeting, then it isn’t a good sign for any future member.

8) What’s this really going to cost me?

You should have a realistic expectation of the time commitment you’re making. You don’t want to be blindsided by the expectations that are placed on you. If you can’t make that commitment (and it should be significant–an average of 9 hours per month), then you shouldn’t waste the organizations time or tie your reputation to something you can’t support fully.

9) What do you do as the boss of the boss?

The E.D. or CEO may run the organization on a regular basis, but they still answer to the Board. That means the Board should support and evaluate the boss. When you support an E.D., when you give them valuable feedback to continue improving, and when you hold them accountable for decisions, the organization as a whole benefits. I’d suggest keeping close track of the jet if you have one.

10) How do we grade ourselves?

The Board isn’t only responsible when things go wrong. They can also be responsible when things go right. If you’re passionate about the cause, if you’re giving your time and energy to provide leadership, and if you want to make a difference, then you can’t waste your time on a Board that doesn’t operate effectively. If the Board never progresses positively, it can be difficult for an organization to do so. Nothing is perfect, so every group should be working to continuously improve. That’s a team that you want to be a part of.
There are many things to consider before making a commitment to a Board. These questions should be a great springboard to help you make an informed decision. Find a group you can stand behind, and watch how that organization changes your community’s landscape. Thank you for all that you do, in your own capacity, to make this place a little better. As always, let us know if there’s any way we can help!

Jul, 16, 2014