Eighteen Questions that Responsible Trustees Should be Asking

Eighteen Questions that Responsible Trustees Should be Asking Right Now
by Evan Kingsley

Shades of 2008. The market is in turmoil. Economic uncertainty is in the air. And where philanthropic dollars are directed, leadership is on high alert.

In troubled times, Executive Directors typically worry about how to keep their programs intact and the staff employed. Development Directors worry that donor commitments will hold, and that angels will fill the gaps. And Trustees just worry.

Here, then, are the tough questions responsible non-profit Board members should ask to make sure the organizations and institutions for which they have fiduciary responsibility are positioned to weather a storm.

  • BUDGET: Are there tight controls on spending? Do we know that projected expenses are covered by highly likely income? Do we have a plan in place to raise additional funds, or to cut in the event of unexpected losses?
  • STAFF: Do we have the leadership in place to redouble our fundraising efforts, and to make difficult decisions? Does the ED have the trust and support of the staff? Does the ED have a contingency staffing plan in place if cuts are necessary?
  • PLANNING: Is there a Strategic Plan in place to guide us? Have we used the plan to raise the funds needed to keep us on track? What adjustments should and must we make?
  • PROGRAM/CONTENT: Where do our contractual obligations lie? Which programs and initiatives are un- or under-funded? What can we reduce or eliminate, and what can we rally support around?
  • GOVERNANCE: Is there good, frequent and open communication among the Board, and between Board leaders and the ED? Do Trustees understand their fiduciary responsibilities – their role in governance and support (rather than in program)? Is the Board prepared to “step up” to help preserve what should not be lost?
  • FUTURE: What options do we have in the event of a prolonged and serious downturn? Is there another non-profit with whom we might partner or merge; or shall we consider graceful dissolution? Or … is it time to generate visionary thinking to scale up and grow?

These questions should be discussed by Board and staff leaders, and amongst Trustees themselves. In the end, a non-profit is designed to serve a greater good, and to address needs that government and the private sector cannot or will not otherwise meet. In challenging economic times, a sense of purpose may be heightened and the needs more acute. How much more important, then, that we ask these questions as we prepare for whatever is to come.

Evan Kingsley is Vice President and Senior Consultant with The Whelan Group, a 30-year old New York-based fi r m providing advisory services to non-profits and foundations nationally.