Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Questioning board service

If a local nonprofit were to approach you today with an invitation to serve on its board, how would you know how to respond?

That's one of the discussions my students and I are having this week, in a too-brief unit on nonprofit boards. They are exploring a variety of resources, including a great little article from Great Boards, "Distinguishing Governance from Management." Then, in one of our group learning spaces, we're sharing some of the questions raised.

What questions would you ask if that call came your way? We'll assume that you are acquainted with the organization extending the invitation and that you generally support the mission.

Here are a few that would be on my mind:
  • Why am I being asked (What are the contributions you see me making to the organization? To the board?)
  • What are the particular strengths of the organization? How has the board led the way to creating and building those strengths?
  • What is the most difficult thing the board has faced in the past three years? How did members address it?
  • What is the one thing that the board brings to the organization that is essential to the organization's existence (if the board didn't make the contribution, or fell short of a quality contribution, the agency would suffer)?
  • How do board members know when they have had a productive meeting (What are the markers for success? What are their meeting goals, and how are sessions set up to accomplish them?)
That's just a beginning list, one that may or may not closely match your own set of questions leading to a decision. The point is, we should be asking, and thinking hard about commitments we make to nonprofit governance.

Similarly, those extending the invitations should anticipate, and encourage, thoughtful exploration before making a commitment. If a recruit has no questions, and agrees to serve, that should be a red flag.

What questions would you ask before accepting a new governance responsibility? What have I left off my list?

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