Doing good better

“Be clear about your level of involvement before committing so it’s a good match.”

“Know what the organization expects of you in terms of fundraising.”

This advice was among many comments shared by employees of the Standard Insurance Co. upon completion of “Board Boot Camp,” the first session in a series of trainings designed to help company employees prepare to become board members of local nonprofit agencies.

The Standard encourages its employees to get involved with local nonprofits through contributions, volunteerism and board service.

Business leaders have long served on the boards of nonprofit organizations, but “cultural” differences between for-profit and nonprofit approaches have often led to misunderstandings, frustration and bad endings to the relationship. Both nonprofits and business leaders can improve their experience of working together by understanding some key differences between the two sectors:

• Focus on mission vs. “the bottom line”

• Group decision-making vs. top-down administration

• Expectation to do more with less vs. having resources to provide training and materials needed to do the job

• Powered by volunteers vs. paid staff

Out of these differences that create some common challenges among employees who serve on nonprofit boards, the Northwest Business for Culture and the Arts and TACS’ program on effective board service was born.

The “On Board! Series” includes the Board Boot Camp and trainings on the role of the board, fundraising and financial oversight. Company executives also weigh in with real life stories, and peer learning is encouraged.

Participants are prepared or reminded of their role as board members, bridging the cultural gap and providing specific strategies to fulfill their board duties.

What to ask

Before agreeing to join a nonprofit board of directors, here are some key questions to ask:

• Why do you want me to join your board?

• What is the role of the board?

• Has the board adopted a conflict of interest policy? Do board members follow it?

• Does the organization have directors and officers liability coverage?

• What has the board spent the most time on in board meetings in the past year?

• What is the long-term fundraising strategy for this organization?

• Is the organization audited or reviewed by an independent certified public accountant? Why or why not?

• Has the organization experienced any allegations of financial mismanagement?

• How often does the board evaluate the executive director?

• What do board members consider to be the organization’s greatest accomplishments?

— Excerpted from TACS’ “Before You Say Yes: Questions to Ask Before Joining a Nonprofit Board”

Carol Cheney is an associate consultant for TACS, a Portland-based nonprofit management training and consulting organization that serves the Vancouver-Portland metro area. She can be reached at or 503.239.4001 ext. 112.

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