What should I know about serving on a nonprofit board?
September 27, 2017 4:30 PM   Subscribe

I've been asked by a fairly close friend (though not someone I spend time with regularly; more of an old/longtime friend) to serve on the board of his nonprofit. Help me make the decision.

Let me start by saying that I fully support the organization and trust my friend as a great leader. But this feels like a big commitment and I'm not sure how to be fully informed about the decision.

The organization is large, very functional nonprofit that provides a service in an industry in which I have no professional experience. (For the sake of anonymity, imagine something on the scale of a city-wide youth and family services organization. It's actual a different industry, but same idea and scope... many employees, several sites, underserved clients.) It's been around for a while and grew out of another organization that has been around even longer. I agree with, and fully support, their mission and vision and want to see the organization grow even more.

Reasons I want to serve:
- I support the organization. I think I would bring a valuable perspective to their governance.
- I have dreams of starting an organization in the future that would require a board, so it would be good experience and I could make good social contacts too.

I guess my main hesitations are:

- I literally know NOTHING about board governance or even business operations. I work in a different service industry and have never worked in a standard office type setting so I feel inexperienced in the ways of large businesses/organizations. This is a huge, multi-tens-of-millions-budget organization - I feel like I don't know enough to help guide something this big. I would also probably be the youngest person on the board.
- I have little to offer in the tangible benefits that board members usually bring - financial contributions and a large, wealthy, philanthropic social circle. My friend knows that I don't bring either of those things.
- Is there a possibility my service on this board would affect my relationship with my friend? He is the CEO so obviously is hired/fired by the board.

Give me all your stories of board services, or your opinions about why I should or should not do this.
posted by raspberrE to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm skeptical about your friend's motivations and question whether something's up and he needs more friends on the board, in which case, run. And just so you know, CEOs don't appoint board members; nominating committees of directors make recommendations to the full body. They would quite possibly consider a candidate brought forward by the CEO, but usually that person would have one or more of the following: pertinent experience, other needed expertise, connections, money. By your own account, that's not you [yet].

If you want to keep this option open, you need to talk to some other people with insight. Do you know anyone else on the board you can talk to (not whoever the CEO recommends)? Maybe call the person you'll be replacing?

If you go forward, you can't be a rubber stamp for the CEO and this may test your friendship.
posted by carmicha at 4:46 PM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ask him what training is provided for board members. Assuming they aren't just looking for someone to bring a bunch of rich friends to the galas, the actual work of board membership is an acquirable skill. Also ask him what insurance is provided for board members, because even in non-profits, it's one that comes with liability.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:48 PM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Ah, Carmicha brings up a good point that alerts me to info I left out: this is a new board, because the organization is currently ending a partnership with a larger organization (sort of like their parent organization) and has to create a new, separate board so they can apply for their own funding and grants. I understand and agree with the reasons they are leaving this parent organization.

I did wonder about the "friends on the board," but I am also a part of the community this organization serves, which is why he asked for my representation. [Also, as a sidebar, my spouse runs a newish nonprofit, and the first iteration of his board is mostly his friends/people who knows - who also either have pertinent experience, connections, or are members of the served community.]

Sorry for thread-sitting, but want to clarify that.
posted by raspberrE at 4:55 PM on September 27, 2017

Some questions you should ask - what are the expectations of you as a board member? Amount of time spent per month? Committee or additional volunteer stuff? How much money are you expected to donate and or help raise? What specific expertise are they hoping for from you? Is there local board training they will help you access? Many universities have such available and the organization should pay for you to attend it. What are the financials like and even more importantly what is your potential liability on same? I know of one local non-profit that went bankrupt and stiffed many small contractors. Do you know how to read a financial statement? Are they audited? Is there a 990 you can look at or has their partnership with this other organization meant that their financials were all done by the other org? If that's the case I'd want to know a lot about how they are structuring their financials going forward. Who will be the treasurer of the board and what is their competency. I've served on several boards and it can be a really rewarding experience but it is definitely a lot of time and it's important to know as much as you can going forward. Oh yes - one more - what is the term of service and do people typically continue for more than one term (likely not answerable given the changes you're describing.

The other comments up thread are all relevant as well!
posted by leslies at 5:30 PM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

The organization is large, very functional nonprofit


This is a huge, multi-tens-of-millions-budget organization


this is a new board, because the organization is currently ending a partnership with a larger organization

One of these things is not like the others. Your update concerns me. This new org sounds a little precarious; please take the comment above about liability insurance for board members seriously. I know you approve of the split, but make sure hope the donor community and pertinent foundations/funders agree and can/will fund both orgs. Did it get "custody" of properties, programs, income streams, etc. in the separation? Find out before you sign on.

That said, I want to temper your expectations about what you'll be contributing to the board based on your experience as a member of the community of interest. It definitely has value... but not necessarily to a board. Your presence will certainly provide credibility and enable you to educate other board members about community matters. But if youre envisioning contributing to program design, delivery and quality control functions, you may be disappointed. Those things come up when orgs apply for grants or implementing services: they're staff functions and not usually part of the Board's role, at least in large non-profits. Don't get used as a poster child for the community.

Which brings me back to my earlier question: is this organization viable after the split?
posted by carmicha at 5:49 PM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

This sounds like it would not be the best move to meet your own goals or the goals for the org. An org in transition will benefit most from an experienced board that has connections to raise money. At least in the short term. And I don't think you would get the experience you are looking for either. If you want to learn about boards by being on one, your best bet would be to get on a board that is already strong.

I have been working in nonprofits for most of my career, and at the job previous to the one I have now, the board screwed up so massively (over a long period of time) that the entire organization went under with 3 days' notice to their staff and the clients it served with crucial safety net services. This happened not least because they did NOT have liability insurance, so once the executive director left and the board did not have an immediate hire, the finances were so tight that revenue dried up immediately. Well, being on the hook financially for payroll and the lease, and operating expenses, etc. etc. freaked the board out (understandably), so they just shut it down, putting a note on the door to let the clients know.

If for no other reason that it's a difficult period (by definition transition is difficult), this will also stress your relationship with your friend. The CEO is employed and evaluated by the board. So, you would be your friend's new boss.

You are an awesome friend for considering this, but listen to your gut. Maybe it would work for you to join once things settle in on this one instead of right now?
posted by Stewriffic at 6:22 PM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have served on non-profit boards, and I will tell you: no, do not do this. Just no. If you like your life right now, imagine it being hell on yourself.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:04 PM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Depending on the type of functions the board performs in this particular organization, you may not need any business expertise. Typically the CEO/managers of the organization are meant to bring those skills to the table, while the board is charged with ensuring that the organization stays true to its mission, vision, and values. Other types of support like financial, networking etc vary greatly by nonprofit.

It sounds like the value that your friend thinks you will bring is your perspective as a member of the community that the nonprofit serves, and that is the same thing you echoed in what you feel you could provide. I think it's laudable that your friend is looking to have members of his group's target community represented on the board and not just wealthy businesspeople. I say if you believe you can make the commitment and fulfill the responsibilities as laid out, go ahead and take the position. You don't have to stay committed for life.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:21 PM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are a member of the community they serve you may be asked to serve as a member at large type role which can be quite different regarding the resources you are expected to bring. I sit on some boards where I cannot do fund raising etc for conflict of interest reasons but I serve as a technical/ community person (for science stuff). So yes, more info is needed as to your expected role here but that would be a completely different thing than a lot of people here are thinking.
posted by fshgrl at 7:36 PM on September 27, 2017

If this new originazation is in the process of getting 501c3 status, they may need names more than practical experience at the moment. All the paperwork will require the board members names.

They can be changed at any time, but the board has to exist.

New boards can be tricky things. My experience was that we had too much inexperience on our board and things were very tedious as we figured stuff out. That may not be your case at all.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:55 PM on September 27, 2017

Wow, a lot of negative comments here! I've had positive experiences in board service.

Board members do have fiduciary responsibility, so think about that and look into insurance. Ask your friend what kind of accounting, financial planning, and auditing assistance will be available on staff and on the board. There should be a Board Finance Committee or similar with someone who has a solid accounting background, who closely reviews staff's work in this area and provides an independent perspective on the organization's financial health.

This could test your friendship. It could even strengthen it. But frankly, I do think that this is the area where the most risk lies -- that your friend will want more volunteer time from you than you want to give, or that you'll get annoyed by something about the organization (long board meetings with spreadsheets and memos can get tedious) and associate that annoyance with your friend. There's also the "being your friend's boss thing," but to be honest, I think that people who don't like the job that the ED is doing are more likely to just leave the board than to put him/her on a performance plan. But if you are enthusiastic about the organization and your friend's work, this could build your bond, and you guys could accomplish something together!

Unlike a comment above, I think your membership in the served group could have value. Sometimes a board becomes a fundraising board and needs a few "true believers" or people who are close to the work if they are to stay true to their mission. And like any group, board dynamics are funny. Sometimes one person who has common sense or the ability to cut through the details and point out the core issue can really drive opinion. If your friend thinks you'll add something useful to the group chemistry, I would believe them more than commenters here.
posted by salvia at 10:48 PM on September 27, 2017

Let me answer the question another way. Board service takes up valuable hours of your life. There will be tedious bits. But you'll be connected to this effort that your friend is launching. When you look back, will you feel like it was time well spent? Is this where you want to put your life energy?

Do you want to, for instance, host meetings of other [served population] people to influence the writing of a three-year strategic plan? Do you want to attend evening dinner parties for wealthy people so that you can be the one to give a five-minute speech about why [organization]'s services are so valuable to [served group]?

And then secondly, are this guy and the people he's convening people whom you'd like to do that work with? Do you trust him and find him a good guy to do business with? Would you at least consider starting a small business with him? And would you [...searching for a good metaphor...] co-host monthly potlucks for this crew? Will you like them enough to enjoy hanging out for a few hours every month, and do you trust them to bring something good and not just chips and salsa?

That's kind of how I'd answer this question, not by looking for worst-case scenarios.

I guess the other thing I'd do is ask someone else who knows non-profits well and who knows this organization specifically questions about the split and about the new group's finances, to make sure that there aren't red flags to be aware of.
posted by salvia at 11:07 PM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would be wary. He may think getting you will somehow get your spouse and you for one price, social capital. Reminding him how challenging setting up a new organisation can be and the need for objective feedback may give him pause to do more homework. If he is flippantly asking inexperienced or non-industry people to be board members, it significantly reveals his lack of understanding of the time and effort required for new organisation development procedures. You may lose an acquaintance as a result of saying no. If you worry about that, suggest he can call on you when he needs advice.
posted by parmanparman at 5:57 AM on September 28, 2017

I have done this, and it went badly, and I have scars. LET ME SHOW THEM TO YOU.

Being on a board can be super-rewarding, but you absolutely need to protect yourself - especially if you find yourself elected to office on that board.

Here are two things to remember.
  • Absolutely insist on proof of D&O insurance.
  • Are the books audited annually by an outside party? They should be.
I was on a nonprofit board, and eventually elected president, that was absolutely snowed by the executive director -- to the point that she produced fraudulent financial statements for us to hide debts that eventually forced the org into bankruptcy. This could have resulted in personal liability for the officers.

Our situation was insane and bizarre, and is not a reason for you to avoid serving here, but by all means absolutely protect yourself here if you decide to serve.
posted by uberchet at 8:07 AM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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