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10 Questions to Ask Before Joining a Non-Profit Board

08/23/2013 03:45 EDT | Updated 10/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Here are 10 questions you should cover off before signing up as a Director with a non-profit Board. As a Director, ignorance is not bliss; it is your job to know about risks. You will demonstrate a lot of sophistication if you ask these questions before agreeing to join.

Note: I've been part of some fantastic turnarounds with organizations that would have initially failed many of these questions. Those Directorships were actually amazing & fulfilling experiences where I learned a ton. Sure it was a white-knuckle ride at times. However, it would have been a shame if I chickened out, just because of a few red-flags. In retrospect, I was lucky, it could easily have gone the other way.

1. Is a Strategic Plan in Place?

A primary responsibility of the Board is to provide strategic direction for the organization. The Board then hires staff & allocates resources to implement this plan. If a Board does not have a strategic plan it's a red flag.

2. What are the Fundraising Requirements of Directors?

You want to know if the Board you are joining takes the responsibilities of fundraising seriously. Great Boards assign amounts of fundraising to their Directors, and hold them accountable to produce the funds. It's a red flag if only a few Directors actually engage in fundraising.

3. How Often Does the Board Meet?

Typically a Board meets every month. Meeting once a year, or every 3 months might sound like a sweet deal for a Director, however it probably means the Board is not actually engaged.

4. How Many Directors Are There & What Are Their Responsibilities?

You want a Board that assigns individuals to specific roles, and holds Directors accountable to an objective standard of performance. You should seek a clearly defined role for yourself, and be clear about what you will be required to do. It's a red flag to have a lot of Directors without defined roles, and who's only responsibility is to show up at meetings of the Board. A Board with lots of people is not necessarily a great thing. Too often, lots of Directors (say over 12) means people without clear roles, little responsibility, and (probably) lots of opinions.

5. What Director Roles Does the Board Need to Fill?

It's a green light when a Board has an idea of their current skills, the skills they need to implement their mission, and the skills-gaps they need to fill. However if the Board is too small, and lacks the people-power to operate, that could quickly become a red-flag issue.

6. New Directors Package?

Really great organizations will have an orientation package for new Director's joining the Board. Basic things to include are: Articles & By-Laws, Annual Report & Financials, Previous Meeting Minutes, the Strategic Plan, a list of all the Directors and Senior Staff with contact info, an Organization Chart with Committees & Departments, Meeting Schedules of Committees & Board. Read everything. If you join an organization and they don't have this info for you, request it, and make this package available to the next members who join your Board.

7. Director Liability Insurance?

As a Director, you are liable for decisions made on behalf of the organization by the Board. You want to ensure that the organization has sufficient Director Liability insurance to protect its Directors.

8. Relationship Between Directors, Staff, and Supporters?

You want an honest assessment of how the Board and Senior Staff interact. There should be mutual respect. It is a red-flag if the Staff leads the Board, instead of the other way around. It's also a red-flag is there is lots of bad-blood between Staff and the Board. Same with donors. You want to know if the organization is attracting supporters/donors, or losing them. Questions about Staff & Director turnover should also be covered here. If leadership is rapidly cycling through the organization, that's an issue.

9. Good Standing with Canada Revenue Agency & Industry Canada?

Basically, is the organization in good standing with regulatory authorities: have audited financials been filed on time, has the Annual General Report been filed with the authorities, and has an Annual General Meeting been held on time? If not, why? Obviously, this is a red-flag issue.

10. What are the Board and Director Performance Criteria?

You want to know how the Board evaluates their own performance as a group, and how they evaluate the performance of individual Directors. If a Board does not do any performance evaluation, this is a yellow-flag.

There you have it, 10 Questions to ask before joining a Board. This is just a guide. Some of these are more important than others. Remember: organizations could be at any stage of development, and they may not have all these bases covered. It doesn't mean you shouldn't get involved. However, you want to make sure you know what you are getting yourself into, and whether you are prepared to take on the challenge.