When I write about nonprofit board governance I usually spend my time addressing current nonprofit leaders – either staff or volunteers. This article is for current leadership, and also for those who are thinking about joining the board of a nonprofit organization.
I love connecting people to organizations that they care about. But serving on a board has to be about more than a passion for the cause. It’s a commitment that should be taken as seriously as a job. In order to make a good decision for yourself, you need to ask a lot of questions. What follows are questions and topics to dig into, so that you can make a great decision about how you donate your valuable time.
When people get caught up in an organization that is a mess, they tend to become disenchanted with the whole nonprofit sector. And that’s just not fair. There are so many great agencies, working hard everyday, to make our communities and our world a better place. To make sure you don’t end up disillusioned by this sector, here are some red flags to look for when choosing where to serve:
- “Nonprofit” is not the business plan
- Agency lacks focus on the mission
- People are undervalued
- Fundraising comes first
- Lack of board ownership
- Organizations that don’t know who they are or what they need
Let’s dig into each of these issues and what to look for/ask about.
Nonprofit Business = Business
Despite the confusion caused by the title “nonprofit”, all nonprofit organizations are actual legit businesses. They have to make at least as much money as they spend each year. The term “nonprofit” is a tax designation from the IRS. It’s not a philosophy for how to run a business.
In fact, many of these organizations generate a surplus. The difference comes in what they do with that money. A nonprofit organization is required to reinvest the surplus back into the organization. This could be in the form of equipment, supplies, salaries, training, facilities, investments, etc. With a for profit business, any surplus goes into someone’s pocket.
Board members are responsible for the fiscal health of the organization. Before joining any board, ask a lot of questions about the agency’s finances. Even if their financial situation isn’t stellar, does the board have a plan to fix it? Is that the kind of problem-solving work you like to do? Avoid any board that has financial problems that they are refusing to address.
Benefit the Community
Nonprofit organizations exist to make our world a better place. For profit organizations exist to make money for someone – the owner(s), shareholders, investors, etc.
Governance volunteers are charged with making decisions that are in the best interest of the constituents served and the agency. This is why board members are volunteers. When money comes into the picture, there’s personal interest that may influence their decision making. Does the agency have a conflict of interest policy?
Another thing to look for in this area includes ego driven leaders. Agencies with either staff or volunteer leaders who make themselves the center of the work can be extremely toxic. These leaders struggle to keep the focus on the cause. They make decisions based on how they will look/benefit, rather than what is best for the organization and its mission.
Organization Values Its People
Reputable agencies believe in the importance of fair compensation for their employees. Just because someone works for a cause-driven business, it does not mean that they don’t need a livable wage. Caring about constituents at the expense of employees is a contradiction that should be examined.
Young organizations sometimes hire or contract part-time staff to manage operations as they grow. This is fine, as long as they are not expecting full-time work on a part-time salary. Additionally, this should be a short-term solution, while the board figures out how to get to the level of staff leadership they need to be successful.
Strategy Drives Fundraising
So far, I have never encountered a nonprofit that didn’t need money. It’s the nature of the game. Making our world a better place takes money. However, boards that focus on fundraising first are missing the point. Fundraising efforts need to be tied to strategies that have been developed to fulfill the mission. Without connecting those dots, it’s going to be extremely difficult to raise funds.
It is the job of the board to uphold the integrity of the organization. If something doesn’t seem right the board MUST speak up. By asking questions about accountability, generative discussions, and where the power of the organization lies, you’ll get a good idea about the board’s leadership.
Red flags to listen for include any board that lets the staff totally run the show, unaddressed financial issues, lack of vision held by the board, and board meetings where the volunteers just come for a “sit & get”.
Websites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar can help you with your research. These sites rate nonprofits based on their IRS compliance and verify good standing. They provide access to Form 990 data, giving you the ability to evaluate an agency’s financial health. These resources can help you decide if an organization is a good fit for you or not.
Culture, Values, Structure, and Needs
Making a good decision about the kind of agency you want to volunteer with involves knowing yourself. What kind of culture do you want to be part of? What are your values and how do they align with those of the organization? Do you want to be part of building a young organization or will you be more comfortable with all the policies and procedures in place? Do the skills-based-needs of the agency align with your talents?
Other things to consider include your tolerance for risk, what you want to get out of the experience, your time availability compared to the needs, and how you think you can make a difference. Just like every person is different, every organization is also different. Take the time to make sure you find one that aligns with your wants, needs, values and interests.
None of this is meant to scare you away from governance work. It’s meant to give you the knowledge to ask good questions, get involved with reputable organizations, and have the impact that you want to have on your community!
If you are on a board where you see some of these red flags, it doesn’t mean that you should quit and run away. However, you might want to start asking questions and using your influence to help move the agency in a positive direction.
Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to advance your Board of Directors and the work of your agency.
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.