Taking on an executive position on a non-profit/not-for-profit board of directors can be a great way to give back to your community or support a cause that you are passionate about. It is also a time-proven method of raising your profile and recognition within your community, if that appeals to you.
While volunteers are truly the backbone of our economy, providing much needed services that government or private enterprise are unable or unwilling to provide, due diligence is required before accepting a leadership role.
Just because there is no exchange of money taking place in providing volunteer services, it shouldn’t be treated any different than applying for a job i.e. one that you would be compensated financially.
Having been involved in several non-profit board of directors in the past, as a creator, director with portfolio, director without portfolio and Board Chairman, I offer you these top 10 questions and more that you should ask before accepting a role as a Director.
I have seen Directors become jaded, disinterested and frustrated far too often due to not knowing the true ‘lay of the land’ before accepting an invitation to join a board. Consider the inner workings of a non-profit organization to be much like that of an iceberg. What you see in public is not always the true picture i.e. much can be buried beneath the surface.
To be successful and effective in your role as an executive, in a cause that you believe in, one that you don’t mind devoting your precious time and energy to, you really should know what lays beneath the surface.
Here are the top 10 questions you should ask (note: not necessarily in order of importance.)
- Time Commitment: Life, family and work all require an investment of our personal time. Depending on our circumstances, we may have only a limited amount of time, or perhaps we have lots of time for additional activities. Time is not money as some would tell you. It is however a commodity that can be traded for goods and/or services.
As a volunteer Board member, you will be exchanging your time for providing a service. We will talk a little later about what you will be trading but for now it is important for you to get a clear understanding of what time commitment you are making. Will it be one to two hours per day, several times a week, or perhaps four or more hours, every day? There is no right or wrong answer. It is a matter of you being forewarned and acknowledging the commitment that you are agreeing to. From my experience, one of the leading causes of frustration and discontent in a Board member is that they find the time commitment to be onerous. This could be as a result of their life situation changing and experiencing conflict from other commitments.
Questions to ask: “What are the time expectations and commitment to this role?” Follow-up questions, “was my predecessor able to meet that commitment?” “If not, why not?” “What will happen if I find that I am unable to meet this time commitment?”
2. Guidelines Manual/Policy & Procedure Manual: Every established and effective non-profit organization should have a well-developed Guidelines Manual and policies & procedures in place. If anything, it shows that they have given considerable thought to the operations of the service they are providing and have accepted a proactive approach in reducing or mitigating potential hazards.
While it can be appreciated that a new or developing organization might not have these documents in place, they do take considerable time to develop, a long-standing organization without them should be suspect. Are they making up the rules as they go along? Do they have something to hide? Does the organization even have the wherewithal to even do so? Not all non-profits have been created with a great amount of thought or planning.
Specific policies & procedures should address: Volunteer’s Roles & Responsibilities, how to deal with harassment (both internal & external), lines of communication and financial management.
Questions to ask: “Do you have a copy of your Guidelines Manual and/or Policy & Procedure Manual that I can read before making my decision?”
If they have one and are reluctant to let you read it with a statement such as “Oh, we only let our current executive have access to it…” This should start your spidey sense tingling … what are they hiding?
3. Volunteer’s Job Descriptions: This was eluded to in the above section i.e. Volunteer’s Roles & Responsibilities but is worthy of its own bullet.
If this document is in writing, you should be able to get a clear picture of what the expectations will be of you before you make a commitment to taking the role on. Specific areas to look for are as follows: Who does the role report to? Who does the role work directly with? Who does the role oversee, if any? What are the expected time commitments of the role? What are the prerequisite skills & experience needed to perform this role effectively? Does this role have any specific authority? What are the specific duties & responsibilities of the role? Will and how your performance in the role be evaluated? Will this role be ongoing or subject to periodic re-election by the organization’s members?
After reading this document you may decide that the role is looking for more than you are prepared to offer.
Questions to ask: “Please provide me with a copy of the job description for the role I am interested in.”
4. What are the benefits to you of joining i.e. WIIFM? (What’s In It For Me)
Superficially, this sounds like a self-serving question and perhaps selfish by some. The term volunteer does not mean “without value.” This is a fair question. You are giving your valuable time and you should receive something valuable in return. The value lays with the individual. Perhaps you are interested in raising your profile in the community or truly want to give back to a cause that you are passionate about. It may be that the volunteer role provides you with a skill building opportunity or something to add to your resume. We all have different reasons. It is important to know what yours is and if this volunteer opportunity will meet those needs.
Questions to ask: “If I give my time, what can I expect to receive in return?” Answers should include recognition, a sense of fulfillment, personal growth & development opportunities. Be prepared for some resistance to this question as some leaders are prone to thinking in terms of financial compensation and they may judge you on this question.
5. Director Turnover:This is an area that can give you a sense of how functional the Board is versus being dysfunctional. A high turnover of directors could be caused by many factors including poor leadership, increased or unresolved conflict at the Board level, or unrealistic expectations of the Board members. However, it may be a simply reflect the transient or mobility of our modern society. People tend to take on roles and participate in activities that interest them but maybe they aren’t as devoted or loyal to the cause as they once were. This could cause a high turnover and would likely keep the Board Chair busy recruiting replacements to fill Director’s positions.
Questions to ask: “Why did the previous person in this role leave? “What is their name and contact info?” You may receive resistance on the latter question due to confidentiality but it begs the question that a non-profit Board of Directors names and contact info is likely in the public domain and would easily be accessible with a little research. A proactive step at this juncture would be to contact some of the other Directors and find out firsthand how their experience has been with fellow Board members, the Chair and the expectations of their particular role.
6. Director’s Liability Insurance: As a Director of a non-profit organization you are automatically taking on a degree of personal liability. Every organization has a level of risk inherent upon the services they provide. Directors Liability Insurance comes in various titles but the gist is that there is an insurance policy in place that protects the Directors of the Board from claims or losses created as a result of performing the duties of their role. Some non-profits may decide that their activities are low risk and paying the yearly insurance premiums is an unnecessary expense. Having an established Guidelines Manual and Policy & Procedures in place can go a long way in reducing the risk inherent to the activities the organization provides.
Questions to ask: “Does the organization have Directors Liability Insurance in place?” “Would I be covered in the role that I will be taking on?” “What does that insurance actually cover?” “If this organization has financial problems, will somebody come after me to collect payment?”
7. LegalStatus: Different geographical regions may have different legal terms to classify the organization. It could be a non-profit, not-for-profit or a registered charity. My intent here is not to give a definitive answer or advice on this area but only to raise your attention to the need of being exactly sure what you are getting involved with.
Questions to ask: “Is the Society in good-standing with its regulatory body?” “When was the last Annual General Meeting (AGM)?” “May I see the Minutes of the AGM?” “When and how often are Board Meetings held?” “May I see the Minutes of the past Board meetings?” A proactive and effective Board Chair should readily provide you with these answers. Any evasiveness on their part should raise your caution and perhaps suspicion.
8. Clear Mandate: Does the Board and in turn the organization have a clear understanding and devotion to the reason that the organization exists in the first place? It is not that unusual for non-profits to start off with a recognized task, or social problem to solve, only to find that in time they get off track into other directions. From the project management field this would be calledscope creep. This can often be as a result of inefficient leadership, lack of focus to the organization’s mandate or sometimes just unbridled enthusiasm by the Board members.
Mission & Visionary statements can help an organization stay focused and on track.
Questions to ask: “Is there a Mission Statement in place?” “What are the core values of this organization?” A rather blunt but to the point question “Is this organization successful at doing what it says that it is going to do?” If not “Why not?” If not “What is the organization doing to get back on track?”
9. Financial Responsibility: A non-profit organization may or may not have specific financial reporting requirements with their regulatory body. One way or another the organization needs to have a clear recording of revenues received and expenses incurred in their day-to-day operations of achieving the objectives of their mandate.
Questions to ask: “Is the organization financially viable?” “What is the source of their operating funds?” “Are they reliant upon donations and/or annual sponsorships for the bulk of their yearly operational funds?” “Are they currently and in the recent past, been able to pay their outstanding debt?” “Is there any long term financial commitment that you need to be aware of?” “Will fund-raising be a part of the job description for the role that you are interested in?”
10. Organizational Communication: To be effective in achieving its mandate and efficient in doing so, any organization requires a communication plan to be in place. The communication plan should include an organizational chart i.e. a chart that demonstrates the structure of the organization, who reports to who. There should be provisions for marketing, advertising (if there is money in the operational budget), social media i.e. with the public, internally with members, and internally at the Board level.
Questions to ask: “Who is the official voice for the organization?” “Will this Director’s role that I am interested in require me to make statements or field inquiries on behalf of the organization?” “Are there policies & procedures that I can refer to for guidance on communication matters?” “Are there clear lines of communication in place?” “How does the Board interact with its members and/or the public?”
These previous ten areas of questions are all ones that you can ask in a face-to-face interview. Some of the questions you may be able to answer on your own by doing on-line research about the organization or querying people that have been involved with the organization.
One last question that may be a deal-breaker for you “Is there demonstratable leadership?” This isn’t a question that you would likely ask directly but you should be able to determine it for yourself by talking to other Board members or general members. Are the original Founders of the organization still involved with it either on a day-to-day basis or perhaps as an overseer? Does the Board of Directors share the Founder’s vision? Has this created any conflict at the Board level and take away from the Board’s ability to meet their mandate?
In conclusion, I am a firm believer in the value that volunteerism provides to our society. I am also a believer that we should base important, life-impacting decisions on full knowledge of what we are taking on. Society doesn’t make life overly easy for us, we have to do it ourselves. I hope this proactive approach to due diligence in considering taking on a non-profit Board member role has been beneficial to you.
If you are already in a leadership role I would challenge you to raise the bar in your organization and ensure that you are able to answer the questions that I have raised.
Let me know your thoughts, experience and suggestions on this. Together we can make this world a better place.
Top photo credit courtesy of TNOC.photostream Flickr CC.