Thurston County's Hidden Sector

Seven questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking about joining a nonprofit board


In my day job, I help nonprofits be more effective and sustainable.

My areas of focus are working with nonprofit boards, developing effective leadership, and ensuring that the organization has a strong volunteer management program. If those three elements are in place, most organizations can be sustainable to continue to support their mission.

Of those three areas though, the one where I spend the most time is with the board. Too often, people join nonprofit boards for the wrong reasons, including:

  • They are “ordered” to do so by their employer and therefore consider their board time as an extension of their work.
  • To gain political capital in their community and see their time on the board as short-lived with no real investment in moving the organization farther.
  • Because a friend asked them to do so and resent the time expense.

In all these scenarios, the person who is missing is the one who believes in the organization’s mission and is willing to move the organization forward. Those types of board members are hard to find.

What Does It Take?

Serving on a nonprofit board can be a rewarding experience but is also time-intensive and demanding. If you think that serving on a nonprofit board means going to a meeting once a month, you would be wrong;  there is a lot more to it than that.

If you have been asked to serve on a nonprofit board or are considering applying for a board position, there are some things you should ask yourself before you start. These questions are also good to ask during a board candidate interview – yes, boards should interview candidates before asking someone to join (and we have not even started to talk about background checks and contacting references!)

Question #1 – Are you passionate about the mission of the organization, interested in moving the organization forward and also what type of volunteer work is of most interest to you?

As a member of a nonprofit board, you must be committed to an organization's mission before deciding to join its board of directors. Boards can have a significant impact on an organization, but unless the organization is small (we call that emerging) and with little or no staff, the work of the board is not your typical volunteer work.

If you prefer a more hands-on volunteer opportunity, board service might not be the best way to get involved with an organization.

Question #2 – How much time are you willing to devote to the work of the board?

Directors are legally required to fulfill their fiduciary duties, which requires a considerable time commitment. The amount of time varies by organization, but simply planning to attend meetings is not sufficient.

Board members must review financial statements, meeting materials, and prepare for and attend committee meetings on a regular basis. (I usually spend a minimum of 20 hours a month doing the board work for the organizations on which I serve)?

Question #3 – How do you feel about fundraising?

One of the primary responsibilities of the board is to ensure that the organization has adequate financial resources to conduct its mission.

Many organizations require board members to make a personal contribution and/or solicit funds. Be prepared to make connections and introductions to donors, attend fundraising events, and send thank you notes.

Question #4 – Do you like working on a team? How do you feel about meeting and working with people from different professional and social circles?

Nonprofit board members must work together to build consensus and govern an organization. If you work better alone board service might not be right for you.

Additionally, what we call “high performing boards” comprise a mix of professionals to bring a variety of viewpoints to a discussion. I have often been told “oh our board gets along very well, we never argue about anything.” That sounds, to me, like a board that is not moving forward. There should be discussion and debate during board meetings, it is respectful and not antagonistic, but board members should disagree on occasion.

Question#5 – Do you understand the roles and responsibilities of being a board member?

Board members have a number of obligations — including those that are legally sanctioned — to an organization.

For instance, did you know that you can be legally responsible for covering the expenses for an organization if fraud occurs?

Question #6 – Is there an opportunity for you to make a difference?

Identify your role on the board. Do you bring financial expertise? Community connections? Before joining a board, ask yourself whether you feel that your work on the board will make a positive impact on the organization.

Question #7 – Do you feel comfortable with the overall health of the organization?

Board members have a legal obligation to the organization they govern. If you are not confident the organization is managed well, either by the executive director or the current board members and believe your association with the organization could put you at risk, it may be time to take a step back.

Serving on a nonprofit board of directors is a wonderful opportunity and one that should be open to more people in our community (too often boards will recruit someone because they served on another nonprofit board).

If you have more questions about board service, feel free to contact me I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Soliciting your ideas

If you know of a nonprofit that is doing something great, celebrating a success, needs some outstanding volunteers, or hosting an event, let me know! This column (aside from a little education) celebrates nonprofits!

Mary Beth Harrington, CVA (Certified Volunteer Administrator) lives in Tumwater. She travels the country speaking at conferences and to individual organizations articulating issues facing nonprofits. Send your ideas to her at


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