Not all nonprofits want your help. They want a board, but they don’t want its help.
I know this because I was recently a member of such a board.
The small, local nonprofit had been started by someone (the executive director) who firmly believed that she knew what was best for it — its social media, its marketing, its direction, its funding.
What the ED neglected to tell her hand-appointed board (her fifth in about as many years) is that all she wanted them for was their ability to raise money. She resented any attempt to discuss her failed web site, previous attempts at failed marketing, and how money was spent.
When her boards failed (as they did every year), the executive director would fire them and bring on a new one. (Forget for a moment that executive directors aren’t allowed to fire their boards — it’s the other way around!) Still, this was life as usual for many years, and still is.
Nonprofit boards are no strangers to giving. Most members of nonprofit boards give a set amount each year and/or expect to pick up the tab for occasional pitfalls and unexpected needs.
But enough about me.
I don’t want you to join a board such as the one I’ve just described, so here’s what I suggest you do to vet a nonprofit.
How to join a nonprofit board the right way?
1. Request budgets from the previous three years.
One is just one, two could be a coincidence (or a wild disparity), but three will likely show you a pattern.
2. Find out where all incoming money originates. Some budgets just lump these into the general “donations” category. Make sure they are broken out by individual donor.
3. Make sure that there are bylaws. I actually never saw any bylaws for this organization.
4. Make sure there’s a business plan. The business plan should have put a number figure on growth for the coming year. Does the plan make sense to you? Has it been working? How close has each year been to predictions/planning?
5. Find out why you’re there — who left the board to create your opening and why? If an entire board has turned over, consider this important. Speak to the people or people who have left this organization’s board of directors. Speak to the ED and find out what, if any, skills he or she is looking for from you.
6. Ask around town. You’d be surprised what you can learn about a nonprofit by simply asking, “Have you heard of XYZ?”
As always, if someone is pressuring you to join, do’t consider yourself on his or her timeline.
Remember: when you join a nonprofit board, you are liable for the financial decisions made by the organization, from the budget onward. In other words, you can be sued if something goes wrong.
So if you want to find a nonprofit board you can help, do the research first yourself. Look into nonprofits that have impressed you and that may need your help. If you want to offer your professional skills, find groups that obviously need your help and interview them.
If you’d rather offer time, money, and other skills (or build on skills you don’t have), make sure these are options available to you.
If both you and your new board agree that you’ll be an asset, be specific about what you’ll offer the group. Put it in writing with an annual goal.
I hope I haven’t made you too frightened to offer your time to the right nonprofit. Doing good for others is really important.
I just don’t want you going through the heartache that I did by getting involved with the wrong organization.