Membership on a nonprofit board can require a big investment of both time and money, so make sure you are a good fit with the organization.
Our clients join nonprofit boards for a variety of excellent and well-intended reasons. They are passionate about a particular cause, type of art, or the private school that their children or grandchildren attend. They want to do good and give back. They want to become involved in their community and connect with their peers. However, sometimes the expectations of a board member are significantly different from what he or she experiences, and this can lead to a very disappointing board experience. So how does a prospective board member know if a particular nonprofit organization will be a good fit?
Let’s assume that an organization in which you have an abiding interest has asked you to join its board. If you are thinking about accepting a position as a member of a nonprofit board, before taking the plunge, you should consider several issues and ask yourself and the nonprofit organization a number of questions to ensure that your board service will be as rewarding and fulfilling as you hope, as well as beneficial to the organization. In short, you should conduct due diligence not unlike what you would do if you were switching employers or making an investment. After all, the nonprofit organization will require a significant investment of your time— and usually of your money.
Size and Structure
Not all nonprofit organizations and boards are alike. They have different resources and structures and make different demands on their board members. For example, larger nonprofit organizations typically have a large professional staff; therefore, as a board member, you may have less control and less direct involvement, and you may be relied upon more for fundraising and more detached oversight. On the other hand, smaller nonprofit organizations may require you and their other board members to roll up your sleeves and take on functions and activities that would otherwise be handled by staff in the larger nonprofit organizations. While this may not be appealing to some, others may relish a more “hands-on” role. Neither structure is right or wrong, but one may appeal to you more than the other.
Some boards have a large number of board members and are unwieldy as a consequence. This may result in a feeling of detachment and the sense that you don’t have enough impact on the organization. In an attempt to remedy the unwieldiness of a large board, the members may choose a subgroup to serve on an executive committee that can reach consensus more readily. Although this approach may streamline decision-making, if not handled appropriately, you and other board members who are not part of the executive committee may feel even more detached from the organization than before.
The Board’s Role in Fundraising
Securing donations is an integral part of board service. From a board recruitment standpoint, access to funding can be a top priority in addition to having board members who are good stewards for the organization. To quote the CEO of a large, local nonprofit organization, “No money, no mission.” The nonprofit’s CEO or executive director can often provide the best insight into the fundraising expectations placed on board members, including how much you are expected to donate individually.
As a prospective board member, you should consider how much of an impact your donations will have on the organization. A $5,000 gift to a smaller nonprofit organization is certainly going to have a much greater impact on that organization than an identical gift to a much larger nonprofit organization. It may come down to the question of whether you want to be the “big fish in a small pond” or whether you prefer not to draw the attention of a “big donor,” contributing to an organization where your donation will be relatively modest. How you view this issue may be a significant factor in whether you seek to join a smaller organization or a larger one.
It is also a good idea to attend at least one of the nonprofit organization’s fundraising events before joining the board. This can better illustrate the nature of the organization’s fundraising efforts and your expected role as a board member in fundraising activities.
As a prospective board member, you should attempt to understand how much of a time commitment board service will require. How long are the board terms? How often are board meetings held? Are they held every month or every other month, with committee meetings in between? How many committees are board members expected to join? Are there annual board retreats and, if so, when are they usually held and for how long?
Participation on a board committee can have a significant impact on your time commitment, and the time commitment for committee members is rarely smooth throughout the year. For example, a marketing or gala committee is generally going to be busiest during season and less busy during the summer months. Likewise, an audit committee will be busiest after the organization’s fiscal year-end, because that’s when the annual audit will be conducted and the organization’s income tax return will be prepared and filed. Since staff is busy during season with marketing and fundraising efforts, the fiscal year-end is often June 30 or September 30.
If you expect to be absent from Florida for all or large parts of the summer, you should inquire as to whether board and committee meetings are regularly held during the summer months. Another good question is whether participation by telephone is permitted.
The purpose of this article is not to scare you away from joining a nonprofit board. Instead, we hope it helps you make a better-informed decision and pick the best nonprofit organization for you. We hope your board service is a rewarding and fulfilling experience for you.
Mike practices tax, corporate, and business law, handling sophisticated tax planning and tax controversy matters and advising clients on their most significant business transactions. He is actively involved in the boards of many civic and legal organizations. Mike earned his JD and MAcc from the University of Florida and he is certified by the Florida Bar as an expert in tax.