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Demystifying Board Service: Part 3

If you’ve been following this three-part series on board service (check out part 1 and part 2), you know that finding the right board to serve on is a nuanced adventure. Besides your time, talents and desires, you have to consider the purpose of the board and the organization’s needs and wants. Before making that final decision on whether or not to join the board, you should also take a closer look at the organization’s size, funding and culture.

Size

Size can refer to many factors influencing the work of the board, including:

  • Number of staff
  • Number and size of programs
  • Number of volunteers
  • Size of the budget
  • Reach of the organization (i.e. local vs. national)        

Finding out these factors will lead you to ask deeper questions about the organization and your potential board experience.

Organization

You

Is the nonprofit a local or national organization? How do they interact with their constituents?

How connected do you want to feel to the organization’s constituents? What kind of reach are you looking to have in your board service?

What is the level of organizational bureaucracy? Is it hierarchical or decentralized?

What kind of structure do you feel comfortable working with? 

Funding

Funding sources come with different mandates and requirements that can influence how the organization functions. Some sources include:

  • Individual donors
  • Fee for service
  • Foundation grants
  • Government grants and contracts
  • Membership dues

Most organizations have a mix of revenue sources, and it’s good to have an idea of how they impact the organization. For example, an organization primarily funded by individual donors is generally going to have more latitude and flexibility in spending money than a government-funded organization. Here are some questions you can ask to learn how the organization’s funding might impact your work on the board.

Organization

You

What is the income mix?

What kind of fundraising do you feel comfortable doing or do you want to do?

How reliable are the sources of income?

Do you prefer the excitement (or stress) of working with an organization with less reliable sources? Or would you rather work with an organization that has that more established?

How autonomous is the organization from their funding sources?

Do you want to work with an organization with systems in place to meet funders’ demands or one that has more flexibility?

Is the nonprofit proactive or reactive when it comes to their income mix?

Do you want to be part of an organization that already plans their ideal income mix or do you want to help them create this plan? Tip from Michael Anderson at Nonprofit Assistance Fund: If the organization isn’t planning for their ideal income mix, they can run into problems like mission drift or crises.

Organizational Culture 

There are no hard and fast rules about nonprofits. Nonprofits with large budgets or staff are not necessarily more formal, professional, stable or bureaucratic than nonprofits with smaller budgets and fewer staff. What you want to do is try to get a sense of the characteristics and values directing the work of the nonprofit—organizational culture—and its potential influence on your board experience.

To start to understand the culture, ask questions about staff or board retreats, trainings, events and recognition. Is this an organization you respect and would like to work with?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on the board of Rainbow Rumpus—a small organization just over five years old with one paid staff member who is supported by an incredible team of volunteers. As a board, our work is fairly different than a board of a much larger or more established organization. We watch the budget closely every month to make sure we can make payroll. We are in the process of developing our first committees and putting into place processes necessary for our organization to grow. In many ways, our executive director needs more support from the board.

For me, this translates into an experience where I can help formalize the board and set the direction of an organization that is growing—which is exciting and dynamic, and just what I’m looking for.

Some people might refer to this as a “working board.” I heard someone say once that all boards are working boards. I would agree with that—it’s just the work often just looks different. 


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