How to Serve on a Nonprofit Board Without Regretting It

Making the Right Match and Getting What You Need

Nonprofit Board meeting and discussion about bylaws.

Sam Edwards / Getty Images

Serving on a volunteer board of directors can be a study in frustration or one of the great pleasures of your life. If you and the organization are not well-matched, you may be bored at best and appalled at worst. But when both volunteer board members and charity are compatible, serving on a board can be personally and professionally rewarding.

What Do Nonprofits Look for in Board Members?

It's probably no surprise to learn that passion for the cause ranks very highly when considering a new board member, as is the ability to work well with others. However, what many novice board members do not realize is that they will be expected to help fundraise for the organization.

One of the most significant challenges for nonprofits is recruiting board members who are willing to participate in fundraising activities and enthusiastic about their cause.

Nonprofits often enjoy being affiliated with people who are well known and well connected. As such, they might look for potential board members in particular professions that can provide specific expertise or a connection to a specific group or political party. They may also place more value on board members who are wealthy or of a particular age group.

What Your Should Know Before Accepting a Board Position

When you're approached for a board position, it's equally vital to ask yourself some questions and do some organizational analysis before you open up to serving on a board.

Funding for Good, a resource about nonprofit boards, suggests that before considering board service, potential board members should ask themselves questions that include these considerations:

  1. How passionate am I about this organization's mission? Being on a nonprofit board can be intense. Starting with a strong commitment to the mission will help you last.
  2. Do my skills match the needs of the organization? Nonprofits need a wide range of skills from board members. Do my education, interests, and skills fit with this nonprofit's needs?
  3. How long has this organization been around? Stability and longevity matter. A brand new organization may require far more work than one that has been around for a while and has all its processes in place. Am I willing to put in the work this nonprofit is likely to need?
  4. How successful is the organization? Has it celebrated any big wins lately? Or does it seem to be always struggling to stay in business? Do I want to be involved with a struggling endeavor? What challenges does this organization seem to face? Are there demographic challenges? Monetary ones? Competition for funds or clientele? Can I help with any of this? Or do the challenges seem overwhelming?
  5. How financially stable is this organization? For instance, do they have an operating reserve, or is the organization in a financial crisis? Is there a development plan? What are the primary sources of income? Do I feel comfortable with the way this nonprofit supports itself?
  6. How are board members chosen? Is there a good onboarding process? Does the board have any power? How large is the board?
  7. Does the organization have directors & officers (D&O) liability insurance? The personal assets of board members should be protected from lawsuits and the organization's debts.
  8. What does the organization expect from its board members? For instance, how often does it meet? Is a monetary contribution required or a certain number of hours volunteered (many boards require board members to donate a particular sum of money annually)? How are board members involved with fundraising? 
  9. Is there a cost associated with attending meetings? Are board members reimbursed for travel expenses? Is there an honorarium? Most volunteer board members serve at their own expense. However, they may be able to take a tax deduction for certain costs, such as travel.
  10. How long is the board term? Is it one year, two, three? Can I make that commitment to the organization?

Although incorporation provides limited protection of board members and officers against lawsuits, most nonprofits also purchase D&O insurance. This insurance protects the private assets of board members and officers from lawsuits against the organization. However, it will not protect a board member if they have broken the law or not fulfilled their duties.

Potential board members should be aware of the essential duties they must adhere to and make sure that they are properly protected with adequate insurance by the organization.

Your Obligations and Rights as a Board Member

When you serve on a board, you have legal obligations, such as the duty of care (participate actively in making decisions on behalf of the organization), duty of loyalty (put interests of the organization before professional and personal interests), and duty of obedience (ensure that the organization complies with all laws and adheres to its mission).

You could be liable if you and your fellow board members don't keep the organization out of trouble. Consequently, you also have rights, such as the right to be safe, well-informed, and protected.

Make sure that the organization can provide:

  • Full and proper training
  • Full disclosure before voting on any issue
  • A safe and secure environment in which to conduct meetings
  • Outside expertise when needed
  • Adequate insurance such as general liability and directors and officer insurance.

The Bottom Line

If the responsibilities seem overwhelming, it's because being a nonprofit board member is a serious commitment that has consequences should things go wrong. Too many board members say yes without considering how reliable the organization is or even understanding the roles and responsibilities of being a board member. Even if you only follow a few of these suggestions, you're likely to be a step of ahead of many who accept board positions.