It's so easy to fall in love with any number of worthy causes these days. With the explosion of social media and some savvy marketing, in any one day you might find yourself being pulled to rescue wild horses, abandoned puppies, or even the homeless here in Los Angeles. Maybe you want to inspire high school youth or even dig wells in Africa...the possibilities are endless. But now that you've gone through our helpful series and decided you are ready to join a nonprofit board, how do you go about choosing one?
We're here to help. Whether you're hoping to inspire environmental change or help military families, a few truths about nonprofits translate equally across all agencies. Using our quick tests will help you weed out just a good cause from a great one. Here are some things to consider when choosing a nonprofit board to join.
Before we begin, its important to know that almost all of this information should be available online for any reputable agency. Some of the smaller or newer agencies may not have this information online, but it doesn't make them any less reputable, it just means you may have to call and ask for it. In each section, you'll see bolded items to look for that will help you answer these questions. Please know that by no means is this list exhaustive or comprehensive, its just a starting point so you know what you are getting into. After all, no one likes surprises (unless its chocolate or trips to Hawaii, then we pretty much all like surprises, right?)
Also, this list is intended for you to use once you've already selected a potential agency board to join. If you have the DESIRE to join a board of directors, but haven't found an agency that speaks to you: Learn more about our Nonprofit Matchmaking Service. We have a lot of amazing agencies, both local to Los Angeles and nationwide, that desperately need committed Board members.
But assuming you've identified an agency, let's begin.
Mission (Mission statement, List of Programs)
First things first: What is the mission statement of the agency? Does the mission speak to you? Why? Is it a personal connection (family or friend) who introduced you or is it something for which you are simply inspired? Nonprofit programming is the method by which we work towards our mission. Looking at the programs, do you understand and agree with the way the agency works towards it mission? Do the mission and programs convey passion and actually seek to solve a problem? What would happen if this problem were solved overnight? Would the agency still exist?
Stability (990, Board of Directors Roster):
What you are looking for here is to make sure that the agency is in a stable financial position since Board Members are liable if things go south. Using past 990's as a guide (these are public information typically available through guidestar.org), take a look through past filings to learn if the agency has been running a deficit, where their income is derived from, if their expenses outpace their income, and what their top executives are paid. As far as stability, take a good look at the Board of Directors and take a look at their bios - can you tell how long they have served on the BOD? Are they from diversified fields? How many members are there? A tenured and diversified Board is a good sign of stability. A healthy Board of Directors should have a minimum of 6 members who are NOT staff.
Future Growth (Strategic Plan, Capital Campaigns)
This one is a little trickier to measure, but in general you are checking to find out how the agency wants to develop in the future. A specifc and detailed strategic plan can be helpful in determining the direction that the agency is headed in, and how they plan on getting there. As a member of the Board of Directors, part of your job will be to fundraise for the agency, having solid goals and outcomes will only make your case stronger. Another good place to look for future planning is to see if the agency has any recent capital campaigns. This will signal if the agency is expanding its facilities or programming and give you an idea on how the agency is moving forward.
Impact (Tour, Interviews and Data on Results)
This may be surprising to you, but we've met with Board members on multiple occasions who have NEVER toured an organization where they sit on the Board. They are missing out. There is no quicker way to see the impact of an agency than to visit its programs in person. While you're there, interview staff members, volunteers and program alumni to get anecdotal evidence of the impact your charity is having on its mission. But anecdotes aren't enough. Ask for hard numbers on programming: How many clients have been served or wells have been dug? How much does it cost per client? How many are followed up with after the fact? While these questions can be a bit uncomfortable, not knowing the answers could leave you in a difficult position in the future.
Chemistry (Board Meeting)
Assuming you've gone through the rest of the criteria and liked what you saw, the final and most critical step is to actually attend a Board Meeting. Do you fit in well with the existing Board Members? Did they seem to get along with each other? With you? Who ran the meeting: the Board Chair or the Executive Director? Did you feel like your time was well spent? Did you feel like everyone contributed equally or were there a lot of blank faces? Make sure you feel like you are valued, welcomed and comfortable at any potential Board of Directors you might join.
The Logistics (Board Contract)
Once you've decided to join a Board, know your responsibilities, liabilities and requirements. Ask to read a sample Board Contract and ask specifically about the meeting schedules, annual events and give/get calendar. Ask the Executive Director to clear up any questions or concerns you have about anything you've seen and ask for the current budget and insurance coverages to ensure you're covered by a Directors and Officers liability policy. If any of these things aren't available, these are items you'd want to clear up before committing to an agency.
Still not sure?
If you are a committed individual seeking Board service or an agency seeking committed Board Members, sign up to participate in our new service: Nonprofit Matchmaking (don't worry, its free) Of course, you can always contact us for help deciphering (or creating!) these important materials.
Need a crash course on being a Board Member? Sign up for our upcoming Learning Lab!