In most countries, non-profits are required to have a Board, whose stated purpose is to advise the founder/CEO, and to ensure that the organization abides by the laws of the land, and that it pursues its objectives as publicly stated.
Usually, founders start off by inviting friends and family members—people who trust them and can, in turn, be trusted. This is actually a good way to get started, because it allows the founder entrepreneurial freedom to test and innovate ways to move towards the organization’s vision.
As the organization evolves, the need for support begin to diversify. From purely compliance, the role of the Board changes to one that can handle other functions as well: fundraising, strategic guidance, M&E, program support, etc.
At this point, many founders will start to reach out to change the composition of their Boards. Some will, of course, continue to work with existing members.
If you have been approached to be on the Board of a non-profit (or actually any) organization, should you say “yes” because it is an honour bestowed on you? Hold on. Here are some questions you might want to ask before pressing that “Yes” button.
First, figure out things from your perspective.
Selfish though it may sound, remember that being on a Board is as much about gaining from the experience as it is about contributing. Being aware of this and articulating the same to the founder/CEO establishes expectations at both ends. Learning from the experience is almost always an imperative for sustainable engagement beyond any other motivations you may have.
Consider the possible constraints you may have that may impact the engagement. This could range from the type of personality you have, to other limitations based on your personal/ professional stage of life. Take stock of this and clearly articulate it to the founder/CEO.
Then, if you think you are ready to consider it, find out more.
Research the organization itself, even if you have been approached by a friend. The organization’s list of supporters, including large institutional donors, will generally indicate the credentials of the organization. However, it’s also helpful to ask questions socially around sources of income and expenditure as well as how finances are managed. There are other areas you would want to explore: for example, the compensation for the CEO/senior management team.
Most people accept a position on the Board because of who has invited them, and not very often on why they have been invited. Ask what your specific role will be, and what contributions are mandatory in terms of time, skills, and effort. If there is clarity on this, then it becomes far simpler to make a decision.
Ask questions about the role of the Board. What is the overall expectation from the Board itself? Is there adequate clarity on the role of the board and other individual members? What does each member bring to the table in their role?
Find out how the contribution of the Board members are monitored, if at all. This is an indication of how serious the organization is, in terms of Board engagement and expectation. At the very least, the expectations should have been articulated.
Past minutes will highlight key decisions that the Board has made, and the manner in which it made them.
Answers to these questions will help you get a grip on what being on the Board entails, and also whether you will be able to contribute meaningfully towards the cause the NGO espouses.