Founder Blog: Serving on a Non-profit's Board of Directors

"It is with great honor I ask you to join our Board of Directors"

By: Heather Wentler

“Dear ‘You’,

It is with great honor that I’m writing to you today to ask if you’ll serve on our Board of Directors? The ‘non-profit name’ believes that you are a great candidate for this role and we hope you’ll accept.

Please let me know if you’re interested in this opportunity or schedule a time to talk through any questions you have by ‘mm/dd/yyyy’.

Thank you,

<Organization Lead Person>”

Have you ever received one of these emails? Or something similar via a phone call or text? If you have, I’m sure you had many thoughts run through your mind, maybe including some of the following:

  • Oh wow! They want me?!

  • Why are they asking me? I don’t know if I’m the right person.

  • What’s the catch?

  • I’m saying yes now!

  • How do I delicately say “thank you, but no”?

As someone who runs a non-profit organization and sends asks like these, as well as receives asks like these, I’m right there with you as far as the range of emotions. It’s an honor to be asked to serve on a Board, but there’s also a lot of responsibility that comes along with it and the role may require more time than you expect. Doyenne is in the middle of seeking new board members. I'm not saying that our way of finding board members is perfect. I want to share with you our recruiting style, along with how I decide if sitting on a different organization’s board is a good fit for me. 

What are the needs? The first thing I do when I think about who I want to ask to sit on the Doyenne board is think about who is currently on my board - what skills, experiences, and backgrounds do they bring to supporting the organization and keeping it on track. We have developed a matrix that has different areas of expertise and demographic boxes along the top, and names of current board members along the side. The visual helps me see where gaps are and then helps me center in on what types of individuals I’m looking for. The boxes along the top may change based on the strategy or goals of the organization too. This also helps me explain to potential board members why I’m reaching out to them and why I’m asking them to join. 

I don’t want just “yes” people on my board. While some of the people on the board may be considered friends or close professional contacts, I don’t want them to approve everything just because of this. The role of the board is to make sure the organization’s leadership is doing their job. The Doyenne Board are my bosses and I report to them. I make sure they know what’s going on with goals and strategies as to where we’re hitting the mark or falling short, what big challenges we’re currently facing or what I think will be challenges coming down the pipe, and what success we’re having. Their biggest role is making sure the organization is being fiscally responsible and staying within our non-profit guidelines.

They’re also a support network. When things hit the fan, because of the relationship I’ve built with my board, I know I can call them to ask for advice, guidance, and support. And they’re going to give it to me straight without sugarcoating it or just telling me “don’t worry” or “you’re doing great” with constructive feedback and ideas for overcoming the challenges. They’re also there to celebrate with me when we have success or exceed our goals. They challenge me to be better, learn from my mistakes, and also remind me where priorities should lie if I start veering off course.

Why should they say yes? I always request a meeting with any potential board member along with my request for them to join the board. And when we have those meetings it is my job to be transparent and open about any questions they have. The last thing I want is a board member regretting their decision to join the board because they didn’t have all the information beforehand. something is revealed after they’ve joined. I usually ask my board members well in advance as well so they have time to think, ask additional questions, and then feel confident in saying yes before I present the motion to vote on them joining the board. Typical questions I hear:

  • How long is a board member term?

  • How much time for meetings, special sessions, etc. is required in a typical year?

  • When and how often do meetings take place?

  • Are there other requirements for serving on the board beyond fiduciary responsibilities?

  • Are their securities in place for me if something happens to the organization? (ie: Director & Officers Insurance)

  • Who do I contact if I have questions?

  • Who else is on the board? 

  • Are there any “perks” or benefits to joining the board?

The first five bullets in the list above should be answered within the organization’s Bylaws or other organizational guideline documents. You can request to see a copy of the bylaws - which I suggest asking for and looking over them. You can also request an organization’s non-profit application documents (which is what the government received and approved) and access their past tax filing on GuideStar

I recommend having current and potential board members connect. It’s good to talk with current and past board members to find out what their experience has been and why they’re on the board. It’s also important to remember that a non-profit board does not operate like a traditional for-profit company’s board of directors. Most non-profits do not pay their board members to serve on their board. They may also ask their board members to support the organization’s needs by volunteering for services the organization provides, serving on committees, fundraising on behalf of the organization, and/or making introductions into new markets to support the organization's revenues. 

Is this a conflict? When considering joining a board you should also think about what other jobs, board seats, or volunteer positions you hold. Some organizations have strict conflict of interest policies where if you serve on their board you cannot serve or associate with a similar organization. Or if you’re paid to do work for a similar organization, you may not be able to serve on an organization’s board. Most times though, as long as you disclose these items to the organization they will make exceptions or figure out ways to work within those requirements - remember, they want you so they’ll bend a bit to get you.

It’s also important to be open and forthcoming if things change while you’re serving and you need to exit due to other conflicts, or if serving for the organization doesn’t fit your values any longer. I’ve seen it happen where things can become nasty and toxic if people don’t leave when they should, or how it can cause the organization damage and dollars if things come to light that weren’t disclosed ahead of time.

If you don’t know what the organization’s core values, mission, vision, or guiding principles are, I highly recommend asking about these during a conversation prior to saying “yes”. Some companies require their employees or executives to serve on non-profit boards or you may feel that this is a way to “level up” in your professional experiences. You shouldn’t serve on a board just to check a box. You should believe in the work they’re doing and the importance of the mission, as well as be able to provide support and requirements they ask for before saying yes. 

Side note: It’s incredibly frustrating to be part of board meetings (or any meeting) where I see other members watching other screens or doing other work. It makes me wonder why they (or any of us) are even in the meeting and feels very disrespectful.

Can I attend a meeting first? I invite all potential board members to attend a meeting before they’re voted onto the board. Before the meeting I treat them as any other board member and send them the full packet of meeting materials and offer to meet with them to go through materials before the meeting - I don’t know how standard this process is, but I think it’s important and part of being transparent and honest. While the prospective board members cannot vote on any items during the meeting, they are welcome to ask questions and provide feedback just as any board member would be able to do.

I’ve joined boards of directors that don’t invite potential board members to attend before voting them onto the board. I also have made the mistake of not knowing that I could request to attend a meeting or ask for information or documents prior to accepting to join the board. I will admit these were mistakes on my part and part of the reason I’m sharing all of this with you. The couple of times that I’ve done this I should have recognized a few warning signs before saying yes - now they’re red flags to me if they’re not offered from the beginning, either openly or when requested:

  • Past meeting documents or organization documents weren’t readily shared

  • Conversations about meeting notes and/or decisions felt like I was only receiving half of the story or not the full truth as to what transpired as to why the organization was in the middle of a “clean up” or leadership transition

  • Other members were toxic or had personal agendas that held back the organization and made meetings really hard to sit through

Can I ask an organization to join their board? Of course! I, personally, enjoy when people ask if they can sit on the Doyenne board. If someone reaches out asking to join it’s because they believe in the organization and the work it’s doing. While the gut reaction is to say “yes” when someone reaches out, I tend to take a step back and evaluate if this is a good fit at this time before moving forward. The matrix we use for board members helps with this and also for conversations with other board members and the person asking to join. I already have talking points as to why they may or may not be the best fit at that time. If the decision is to say “not right now” you can keep them on the backup list for when people term out or roll off the board.

Serving on a board - advisory to director and for both non-profit & for-profit - is an honor and you’re going to leave a legacy because of the time you served.

There are no amount of words I can use to say how much I’ve learned from the Doyenne past and current board members, but I know the organization wouldn’t still be alive without them. Our current board members are listed on the Meet the Team page on the website.