Well, look at that! A friend, co-worker, acquaintance, neighbor, or fellow parent from your child’s school has asked you to join a board! Isn’t this exciting?! Aren’t you flattered?!
What a great way to make an impact on this meaningful not-for-profit!
This is going to look great on my resume!
I’m going to meet so many interesting people!
I’m sure it won’t take that much time!
Boards can be great. Boards can advance your career, provide networking opportunities, and give you a new perspective on business and the world. If you’re being considered for a board position in the not-for-profit sphere, and not independently wealthy, this is a valuable “donation” you can make to a worthy cause.
You will be asked to join a board at some point, if you haven’t already. When this happens, I encourage you to consider it, do your due diligence, and visualize what success on this board looks like to you. If you have any conflict or hesitation whatsoever, I advise you to politely decline.
I’ve been asked to join many boards, and have never accepted. Nonetheless, I feel uniquely qualified to have some opinions about this, as I have worked closely with many boards in my career. When your time comes, use my experiences to decide this very important question for yourself.
Why Did They Ask You?
The ask can happen at work, at church, at a volunteer event, at a social gathering or basically anywhere people are present. A company, not-for-profit, religious organization or other important association needs someone to sit on their board, and they think you are perfect. You’re responsible, organized, civic-minded, philanthropic, etc. Why do they think this? Because someone told them you exist. It’s really that simple.
Not that you shouldn’t be flattered. Someone who likes and respects you put your name forward. Just know that there are probably a couple other names floating around as well, of similarly skilled and professional people. The group is hoping that one of you will bite. If you say no, the organization will continue to exist. Don’t feel pressured!
Maybe you’re a lawyer, and they think they need a lawyer. Do they? Why? You could substitute CPA, teacher, doctor, university academic, social worker or just about any professional occupation in that sentence. What is special about your career that they are hoping to leverage, and is it realistic?
Maybe they are filling some sort of unspoken diversity quota, and want a female or member of a racial minority on the board. Okay, but do you want to be that person, expected to speak on behalf of your race or gender? Is this a genuine desire to foster diversity, or a lame attempt to check that box without confronting any of the underlying issues that produced diversity quotas in the first place?
Does This Organization Align With Your Values?
So let’s say you are interested in moving forward. Read as much as you can about the organization, and ask as many questions as possible. Don’t rely on your impressions, word of mouth, or assurances of the people trying to recruit you. Read minutes and review financial statements. Interview current board members and ask them what the challenges are. Talk to employees and/or volunteers. Google up a storm, and learn what is being said about this organization in the media and on social networks.
If it’s a food pantry, go there and volunteer for a couple of hours to see the organization in action. If it’s a credit union, visit a branch and use one of the services offered to get a sense for how this place runs and how members are treated.
When being recruited for a not-for-profit, determine whether the mission of the organization aligns with your values. Are you a donor? If not, why would you join the board? If this is a religious organization, does it agree with your belief system? Do you regularly attend services or events? I hope so!
Beyond the need to align your service and your values, does the mission of the organization interest you? I consider my time even more valuable than my money. Do you want to spend part of your weekend reading a 50-page packet of materials for an upcoming meeting? Are you willing to skip dinner with your family or miss a child’s soccer game because you have a board meeting? Does the idea of attending a charity auction or celebratory dinner with this group of people sound fun and stimulating?
Do You Have the Time?
If you’re reading this blog, you are likely a busy person. And like me, I’m sure you have put too much on your plate at one time or another. This is one of the things I constantly struggle with, as my business, side projects, family, community, health and desire for free time pull me in different directions. I tend to go into new opportunities with a sense of optimism that I can make it all work. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m oh-so-terribly-wrong!
If you are considering taking on a board role, the question of time is critical. Ask for an estimate of the time requirement, and then follow that up with detailed questions. How many meetings are there? How many social events and ceremonies will you be expected to attend? What about planning retreats or overnight conferences to hone your skills? Meeting prep time? Then really ask yourself; can you handle 5 hours a month? 10? 20?
If your answer is yes, then great! But if your answer is maybe, I would advise you stop right there, decline, and move on. Going forward would be a disservice to the organization you are trying to help. Regularly missing meetings for other priorities reflects poorly on the person who recommended you. If you don’t have time to read the materials packet and prepare thoughtful questions, that is disrespectful to the person who prepared it. By missing social outings, trips, and ceremonies, you will not build the relationships and trust necessary to be effective.
If you can’t fully commit to this board, you are also doing yourself a big disservice by accepting a role. When an opportunity comes up, say a great job connected to someone involved, folks will remember the few times you were not there, rather than all the times you were. If you can’t commit 100%, don’t commit at all.
Motivation, values and time are the three most critical concerns when joining a board. There are other considerations as well, and your recruiting contact should at least be able to point you in the right direction to address them. Does the organization carry D&O insurance? Is it enough? If you have a financial or wealth advisor, it’s worth a phone call to tell them what you’re considering and ask if they see any potential liability. Same if you have an attorney you regularly work with.
What kinds of information will you have access to? Are you going to be handed reams of paper printed with highly sensitive data? How will you safeguard it and eventually dispose of it?
Depending on your career and position, your employer may have a policy that precludes you from serving on a board. Figure this out before you spend too much time pondering the role; your day job might decide for you.
You might learn things you really wish you didn’t know while serving on a board. Imagine finding out that a charity you admire is badly managed. Great if you can now do something about it, but confronting this may dishearten and frustrate you. If you join an HOA or other community board, I’ll guarantee you’ll learn things about your neighbors you’ll wish you could forget! Can you manage having negative feelings about the people around you?
I would also encourage you to do a little exercise. Imagine the worst possible event that could happen at the organization. A massive fraud, abuse allegations, or extreme mismanagement. You are now in the spotlight, your actions as a board member are being scrutinized and the media is taking an interest. Can you deal with that pressure? Is it worth the little or no money you earned taking on this responsibility?
What Makes a Great Board Member?
You probably think I’m anti-board at this point. I’m really not! For that special person who can manage all these pressures and commit fully, this can be an invaluable experience. Boards and governing committees look fantastic on resumes; there’s really no equivalent for this level of experience and commitment. If you are motivated by prestige or status, you might find a board role incredibly rewarding. Board members are generally revered and admired.
However, if you’re looking to make your mark on an organization you care about, you may be disappointed as a board member. Decisions are by consensus and take much longer than you think. Also, just because you hold an opinion or are passionate about an issue, does not mean you will affect any change. It may frustrate you just how little actual decision making authority you have, as the majority of business operations have nothing to do with the board. The great board members understand this, and use their role to influence in an appropriate way.
Other qualities of great board members? They show up, believe in the mission, and ask thoughtful questions. These board members engage in discussions without dominating them, and challenge ideas rather than individuals. Natural board members look just as happy and comfortable in a policy meeting as they do at a fancy dinner, because they genuinely enjoy being part of the group. They keep personal opinions or anecdotal evidence to a minimum during meetings, compromise, and prioritize. Truly great board members inherently know to pick their battles, and choose the time and place to stand their ground for maximum impact. Finally, they acknowledge, but don’t dwell on, past decisions and disagreements.
The Bigger Picture
The opportunities that have come my way just haven’t been right, for one reason or another. Wrong time in my life, wrong organization, wrong priorities. That said, I imagine I will join a board or serve on an audit committee at some point. Eventually, I’ll have my business and personal life at a point where I can take a step back, and it will be time to start paying some of my knowledge forward. It’s part of what makes business and charity work, in the great scheme of things.
Have you ever been asked to join a board? Have you served on a board, and if so, what was the experience like? Would you encourage others to seek this opportunity, or advise caution? Tell us all about it in the comments!
Thank you for reading, and I hope this information serves you well when you are faced with this important decision!