How to decide whether to join a volunteer board

Dinner Party DessertIt's an honor and a privilege to have volunteer opportunities to use our time and talents for the betterment of our communities. One common opportunity is to serve as a board member at an organization you care about and whose mission you support.

I've written before about things you might consider when leaving a volunteer board of directors for a non-profit or other community organization. I've also had some good conversations recently about the process on the other side of that kind of community involvement, deciding whether or not to say "yes" to joining a board of directors or taking on some other leadership role. For your sake and for that of the organization, it's important to do some research and reflecting before accepting that invitation, to make sure your involvement is a good fit and that the experience will be rewarding for all involved.

From my experience, here's a list of steps to take and questions to ask when you're considering whether or not to join a board of directors:

  1. What's the function of the board? Is it purely advisory, or does it make and enforce policy? Is it involved in big-picture strategic planning, or is it managing day-to-day operations? What role does it play in the life of the organization?
  2. What's the time commitment? Some boards meet a few times a year in intensive sessions, but don't otherwise expect much from their members. Other boards meet monthly, with multiple committee meetings and community events in between that you might be expected to attend or even organize. Some boards have very active e-mail mailing lists, others are quiet. Learn how much of your time and energy - in the form of meetings, events and other communications - you'll be expected to expend.
  3. What's the leadership structure? Who sets the agenda for the board meetings? What's the relationship between the board's executive committee or other leadership and the rest of the members? What's the relationship between the board and the staff? Are there "covert leaders" who have exceptional but unofficial or unnamed influence?
  4. How are decisions made? Do board conversations seek to build consensus, or is discussion about convincing a majority to vote a certain way? When there are concerns or conflicts, how are they resolved? Are stakeholders consulted, or informed after the fact?
  5. What's your anticipated role? Are you being invited to join because you have a specific skill, affiliation or resource that you'll be expected to use (e.g. you're a lawyer and they need free legal advice)? Do they already know what committee or project they want you to work on, or will they wait to discern what might be the best fit for you?
  6. What's the new member orientation process? Are new board members formally oriented to the processes and culture of the board, or are they just expected to show up and figure it out? Who does the orienting, and what approach do they use?
  7. How is institutional memory preserved? Does the board create and publish thorough meeting minutes? Are past decisions and discussions easily reviewable so that conversations aren't re-hashed with board member turnover? Are key documents like bylaws, member contact lists, and financial statements made easily available?
  8. What's a meeting like? Ask to sit in on a board meeting as an observer and see how it's conducted. Are the espoused values and mission of the organization manifested in the way the board members interact with each other? Is member participation even and equitable, or unbalanced and dominated? How does it feel to spend an hour of your time in that setting?
  9. Why did other board members say yes, and why are they still there? Talk to other members of the board about their experiences, what they think works well, and what they see as areas for organizational growth. What frustrates them? What projects and successes get them excited?
  10. Check your schedule. Even if the answers to all of the above questions point toward a "yes," look at your existing time commitments and personal aspirations, and ask whether or not you can fully engage in the life of the organization without compromising those. Do you have enough time in the day for a new role?

Are there other things you take into consideration when deciding what good causes and organizations you give your own time to?

3 thoughts on “How to decide whether to join a volunteer board

  1. Great Post Chris! As usual: thougthful, well-reasoned and insightful!

    One area that is often over-looked when people join boards are the legal responsibilities of being on a board (and by extension: fiduciary and liability responsibilities -- depending on the nature of the non-profit ---- be sure to your board is insured if appropriate!).

    Under well-established principles of nonprofit corporation law, a board member must meet certain standards of conduct and attention in carrying out his or her responsibilities to the organization. Several states have statutes adopting some variation of these duties which would be used in court to determine whether a board member acted improperly. These standards are usually described as the duty of care, the duty of loyalty and the duty of obedience.

    Duty of Care
    The duty of care describes the level of competence that is expected of a board member, and is commonly expressed as the duty of "care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances." This means that a board member owes the duty to exercise reasonable care when he or she makes a decision as a steward of the organization.

    Duty of Loyalty
    The duty of loyalty is a standard of faithfulness; a board member must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization. This means that a board member can never use information obtained as a member for personal gain, but must act in the best interests of the organization.

    Duty of Obedience
    The duty of obedience requires board members to be faithful to the organization's mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals of the organization. A basis for this rule lies in the public's trust that the organization will manage donated funds to fulfill the organization's mission.

  2. Great topic and equally great points, Chris! Two items I particularly noted were the the subject of "covert" leaders and the overall resolution of conflicts.

    I would say that it's generally accepted that some board members are quasi proxies for interests not openly expressed in formal meetings. The act of joining is done with some hope of influencing a positive direction, but if most avenues are blocked by extraordinary influences beyond the board, time can better be spent with another volunteer opportunity.

    While no one wants to volunteer as a witness to regular cat fights, the trap of joining "one big, happy family" has at least as many drawbacks. Any leadership body requires deliberation of competing idea, but if the board culture is to simply follow a dominant few whose sensitivity to honest criticism creates a walking on eggshells atmosphere, service on such boards only results in frustration.

  3. Great post -- a couple of additional thoughts:

    1) many NPO's expect board members to help with fund raising

    2) nearly all boards expect board members to make a personal financial contribution to the work of the organization -- this isn't a bad thing, but be sure you know what the expectations are before you agree to serve

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