What to know before you join a nonprofit board

Are you interested in joining the board of directors for a nonprofit organization?  Yes, this means you will get your name on their letterhead and probably will get a nice plaque for your service, but there is much more to being on a board than just lending your name to the organization.  It is important to understand the roles and responsibilities of board members… before joining the board.

For nonprofit organizations, the board of directors has the ultimate responsibility to lead the organization to fulfill its missions.  So, yes… it is a pretty big deal, and it comes with a lot of responsibilities.

There are three legal duties for board members in nonprofit organizations:*

Duty of Care:  Directors and officers must perform their responsibilities in good faith and with the same care an ordinary person would use in managing his/her own affairs.

Duty of Loyalty:  Directors and officers must act in good faith and in a manner which does not harm the organization to the benefit of the director or officer.  Directors and officers must avoid any conflicts of interest or appearances of impropriety.

Duty of Obedience: Directors and officers must comply with the provisions of the articles of incorporation, bylaws, and state laws, and should safeguard the organization’s mission.

In addition to the legal duties, many nonprofits have specific requirements for board members.  Knowing these expectations upfront can help you determine if sitting on the board is a role you are willing and able to fulfill.  Here are questions to ask, before you commit to joining a board of directors:

  • Is there a required financial contribution that board members are expected to donate to the organization?  By having honest dialogue about board giving expectations, you can avoid any surprises that are outside your budget.
  • When and where are the meetings?  You don’t want to double book yourself if you already have a yoga class, soccer league or book club at the same time.
  • Is there a board orientation or training?  Be leery of organizations that answer no and say you can “just wing it”…. being on a board is a serious job and requires training.
  • What is the monthly time commitment?  Be sure you have the time available in your professional and personal schedule to make appropriate time to take on this new commitment.
  • Who else is serving on the board?  If you know some of the other board members, you can follow up with them to gauge their experience as a board member to get more insight into the board.

So, before you decide to add your name to a nonprofit’s letterhead and join the board of directors, be sure you understand the roles and expectations of board members.  And most importantly, make sure you support the organization’s mission and purpose.  Ask yourself if the organization’s mission is worth your time, talent and treasure that it takes to succesfully fulfill your role as a board member. 

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*Bruce R. Hopkins, JD, LLM. Legal Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, Second Edition. (Washington, DC: BoardSource, 2009)


About Dr. Sarah Wolin Mackey

Putting theory into practice at nonprofit organizations.
This entry was posted in Board of Directors, Nonprofit Management, Volunteer and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What to know before you join a nonprofit board

  1. Pingback: Steps towards board leadership | Sarah W Mackey

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  7. Tabatha says:

    When starting a board from ground zero, where do you recommend getting training material on learning to be an effective board.

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