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Is Nonprofit Board Service for You?
By Denise K. Spencer / January 1, 2016

Several times lately, individuals have approached me as follows: “I’ve been asked to serve on a nonprofit board. What questions should I ask? What do I need to know? How do I decide?”

Here’s my list:

  1. Do you have a true interest in the mission of the organization? If not, no matter how badly you may be needed, it will seem like drudgery.  Pass.  If yes, then you might be a good fit.
  2. Does the organization have Directors and Officers (D&O) Insurance?  As a board member, you are legally responsible for the decisions you make and for the actions of the organization.  D&O insurance is liability insurance that can reimburse you for losses or advance legal defense costs for civil and/or criminal actions brought against you.  Intentional wrongdoing, of course, would not be covered. If there is no D&O insurance, pass.  If yes, move on to #3.
  3. What is expected of board members in this organization?  How many years are you being asked to serve?  What are the dates, times and frequency of board meetings? Are you expected to serve on committees as well?  Is there an expected monetary contribution to the organization, and is it within your comfort range? (Every board member should plan to make an annual gift, but if there is a dollar expectation outside your range, then consider that carefully.) What “extra” expectations are there? Selling gala tickets? Soliciting donors? Meeting with grantmakers, or government officials? It is important that you know what to expect, just as if you were taking on paid employment somewhere. Can you envision yourself working there? Are the expectations in line with your time, skills and abilities? If not, pass.  If so, move on to #4.
  4. Do your due diligence on the organization.   As you review the audit, the 990 (the nonprofit’s tax form), and annual report, is there anything that causes you discomfort? Unreasonable debt? Limited sources of revenue? Is there an active legal action against the organization? What is its reputation? Do you know anyone on the board—what is their reputation? Check them out on The Giving Marketplace (if its a local, Lowcountry organization) or check them out on Guidestar.org.  Do an Internet search for media stories—are they positive? If red flags emerge, at least ask the chief executive or board chair to answer your questions.  If they are not answered to your satisfaction, pass. Otherwise, move on to #5.
  5. Why you? Why now?  Finally, ask why you specifically are being approached. Is there a skill set they need to advance their mission or their strategic plan? Are they impressed with your ability to speak, fundraise or lead? Or are they looking for a warm body? Understand that each person on the board has legal obligations, and there is no such thing as just a name on the letterhead.  If you feel you can be of value to a great cause, then welcome to the sector!

What if you want to be on a board, but no one has asked you?  Consider the causes that make your heart beat, and the organizations that most interest you. Perhaps your first and best action is to see if there is a volunteer role you can serve, short of being on the board. Again, locally, you can check Lowcountry Volunteer Connections on the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry’s website and see if the organizations which have piqued your interest have posted volunteer needs there.  Once you know more about the organization from the vantage point of a volunteer, ask about the nominating process for board members if you still have an interest.

If you’ve done your homework, and made a good match, nonprofit board service can be some of the most rewarding volunteer work on the planet. Imagine supporting causes in significant ways—with your money, your time and your talent—and addressing important needs. Living generously in this way can be rewarding beyond belief. Give it a try!

Denise K. Spencer
President and CEO

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