Because You Know I’m All About That Board

Washington Chorus Executive Director, Stephen Beaudoin, published an engaging post at his LinkedIn feed yesterday with five steps aspiring board members should consider that generated quite the conversation. Here’s the original post, with his permission:

To all my friends and colleagues considering the service opportunity of joining a nonprofit board –

Here are five steps you might want to consider before approaching a nonprofit organization to express interest in exploring potential board service:

1. Review the organization’s last few years of 990 filings (all publicly available online, especially through ProPublica), taking care to review the organization’s Balance Sheet and year over year net assets position. What do you see, and what questions does what you see raise for you? 💰💹

2. Attend an event/program or engage in some other “mission touch” (even if only online) by the organization. You must avail yourself of every opportunity to experience the mission of the organization to develop a picture of its operation and impact. What do you observe in these engagements? How do staff and other board members behave? How are program participants/beneficiaries treated and supported? How would you describe the culture you observe? 🤹‍♀️ 💗

3. Make a financial contribution to the organization if you haven’t yet (and nobody should be shopping to join a nonprofit board without first enrolling as a financial contributor) – even just $25. Then note: how quickly, or not, did you receive an acknowledgment of your gift, and through what channels? How was the impact of your gift pledged and demonstrated? And what happened next? 🎁💲

4. Thoroughly review the organization’s website and social media channels. What stories are told, and how? Who speaks for the organization, and what do they say? How are the problems they’re aiming to solve and/or the positive impact they’re aiming to foster framed and illustrated? How do they assess their impact? 🕸👱🏾‍♀️

5. With all of the above taken into account, what sort of picture emerges of this organization, and how does that relate to your why? 🖼 🙋🏽‍♂️

It’s 100% true that nonprofit board service can be immensely rewarding – some of the absolute best work a human can do while on earth.

And I’m always slightly astonished when individuals show up to express interest in exploring board service without first doing these most basic of homework steps.

Let’s be clear: the nonprofit sector is absolutely hungry for exceptional volunteer board service talent – talent that is exceptionally informed, exceptionally prepared, and exceptionally serious about the fiduciary and legal obligations that underlie this service.

So I always encourage myself and others to rigorously and thoughtfully explore, assess, and discern while searching for these optimally aligned nonprofit board service opportunities.

Take your time; find many points of engagement; review the published 990s; observe and participate; invest.

The next Executive Director that welcomes you to their board thanks you in advance for having done your homework.

those are all great points and because this is anything but a concise topic, it didn’t take long for others to begin adding to his list.

“1 & 2 are so critical in the current environment. Use ProPublica or Guidestar and compare the organization to similar sized organizations with a similar mission and/or constituents. Find comparisons in the same market/geographic area and elsewhere in the country. Are there trends in contributed vs. earned income that raise red flags with regard to sustainability. Confirm that your fellow board members strongly align with the mission and are willing to step up in giving or leadership should the need arise.

Building on [Stephen Beaudoin]’s point 2.

What is the interaction between the board’s committees (executive, finance & governance) and the board-at-large? Do the committees make important decisions without input from the rest of the board & key stakeholders? Beware of any disfunction or lack of transparency.

How many terms do board members typically serve? Why do they join, stay and leave the board? Perhaps reach out to any directors who have recently left the board… especially if they’ve left mid-term.

Clarify the entire financial and time ask of board members (ie. annual donation, table/event sponsorship, committee(s))? Will this ask change over time and to what degree? Is there an upcoming or potential capital campaign and if so what are the expectations of board members?”

– Dan Rasay; Board Member, Oregon Symphony

There are several other thoughtful comment but without their permission, it wouldnt’ be appropriate to excerpt them here. So if you have a LinkedIn account and can access Stephen’s post, it’s well worth the time. In the meantime, the only addition I made to the list was Stephen’s first point: along with the 990 review, request a copy of the bylaws and request to review copies of the minutes from recent meetings. Knowing how a board works is the other side of the due diligence coin.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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Because You Know I'm All About That Board