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BEFORE YOU SAY YES: The 411 on Choosing A Great Nonprofit Board

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

You like people! You like animals!

You care about the environment!

You wanna do good!

It’s a natural choice then to serve on a nonprofit board, yes?

Not so fast says, Janice Robinson, Executive Director, United Way, Volunteer Involvement Program, a training program that develops leadership skills and increases volunteer participation in nonprofit boards across Greater Atlanta.

For Janice, it starts with asking the hard questions. One needs to do their homework to determine if it is a good idea to have an organization connected to your life. It is a true commitment. I recently sat down with Janice to get the 411 on choosing a great nonprofit board.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to serve on a nonprofit board?

Start by asking the hard questions. While they are interviewing you, you need to be interviewing them to be sure it’s a good fit. You need to find out if they are in good standing. Find out how much time they need and what the money commitment is for you as a board member.

Q: How does one prepare to serve on a board?

Everyone needs to be trained. It’s great to have folks willing to serve but if they don’t know what their roles and responsibilities are its not going to be beneficial for the organization or the individual. They need to understand why they want to serve and where their passions lie. They need to know they are in a place where they can give their resources to the organization to help them succeed. Some boards require you to raise $500, 1000, or 15,000. Know what you are signing up for before you say yes.

Q: What has surprised you most about board work?

If you meet one board, you’ve met one board. Boards are not the same.

Bylaws are very different. Many boards do not live by their bylaws and some are dated. Some members have never seen them. One organization may be following the bylaws by the letter, others may not.

Some nonprofits are not using their board members so they can flex their muscles and use their power for the organization. This doesn’t leave the organization or the individual in a good place.

The dialogue between the Executive Director and the Board Chair sets the tone for the board. An uneducated board chair or one who does not inform the board of the organization’s needs, is not going to be successful.

I am always surprised when I learn that board members just don’t know what they should do or how they can make a difference; particularly those who have been serving for 15+ years and are comfortable doing the same things.

Q: Why is having diversity on your board important?

One of the most important things a board should consider is diversity. Typically, when that word is used, people think black or white but it’s bigger than that. We need diversity in gender, color, geography, ethnicity or age. But we also need diversity of thought. Just because we look alike, doesn’t mean we think alike.

When we started the VIP program at United Way, the intent was to get people of color on boards particularly African Americans, Native Americans, and individuals of Hispanic descent.

I remember reading a survey which revealed that in 2017, 27% of nonprofits surveyed reported having all white board members. The following year in 2018, there were even more all white boards. Board chairs admitted that it was a concern but not a priority.

If you are on a board and the community you serve, does not look like your board, you need to be intentional about adding others so their voices can be heard. If I have a seat at the table, I’m using my voice.

Q: Can you connect the dots between nonprofit success and fundraising?

Without dollars, the ship is going to sink!

What’s scary is there have been instances when I’s spoken to board members and learned that they didn’t realize fundraising is part of their responsibility. They don’t understand time, talent and treasure. Time is great but treasure is better!

At United Way, we have a large board and departments that help us raise dollars. But our board is important to us. We need them to open doors for us. It must be a top priority.

Q; Do you think nonprofits should have a standard amount for board dues?

I think boards should have a minimum or a suggested amount. With VIP, everyone is expected to raise $500 before the end of the 10-week program. If they can raise those funds in 10 weeks, they can certainly do it in a year.

Q: What traits in a nonprofit should one be looking for before signing up to serve?

First, you must find an organization with a mission that matches your passion. Then you should request to meet with the board chair or a board member. Ask them to share documents that will give you a sneak peek into the life of the organization. These include recent meeting minutes and the strategic plan to find out what they are working towards and what they have accomplished. If they don’t have a strategic plan, that tells you something too. Also ask if they have board insurance and make sure it’s not expired. If they don’t want to share this info, this is a red flag. You can also go to and review their 990. I for one, would not say yes to a big commitment like this, without knowing these important things first.

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