What You Should Know Before Joining a Nonprofit Board

By James V. D’Ambrosio

(This is the first in a two-part series.)

Serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit agency is certainly a laudable calling: volunteering time and effort to benefit an important cause and help others. However, such an endeavor should not be taken lightly — prospective board members should know a great deal about the organization and the commitments involved before signing on. Board service requires far more than attending meetings and voting on resolutions. So let’s begin with the basics. 

After identifying an opportunity and applying, you’ll usually meet with the executive director to discuss your qualifications, why you want to serve, and the skills and resources you can bring to the board. This is your opportunity to ask some very important questions. For example: 

What level of financial support is required? Many nonprofits require 100 percent board giving each year to show commitment to the cause. Often a specific amount is stated —  $500, $1,000, $2,500 or $5,000. Some organizations require significantly more. Make sure you know exactly what is required. In some cases, you can offer to work on a project within your area of expertise in exchange for a reduced financial contribution.

What is the time commitment? Serving on a board involves more time than most people realize. You’ll likely be asked to serve on a committee — development, outreach, finance, nominating — that meets outside of full board meetings. You may also be asked to attend special events, purchase tickets to fund-raisers, or attend  conferences related to the agency’s mission.

How long are the terms of service? This will vary between agencies, but most nonprofits expect a commitment of at least 1-3 years (board terms are often 2-4 years). So if you’re planning to relocate within a year or two, it’s better to wait and join an agency in your new location.

Does the agency carry director’s and officer’s insurance? This is an area some people neglect. A reputable nonprofit should carry director’s and officer’s insurance protecting board members from liability in a lawsuit. Just because you’re supporting a charitable cause doesn’t mean you can’t be sued. In fact, nonprofits share the same risks as for-profits –disgruntled employees, allegations from service recipients, charges from watchdog groups, government agencies, etc. Make sure there is an appropriate policy in place.

Consider the above a starting point regarding the issues involved with nonprofit board service. In Part II I’ll discuss additional items of importance.

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