Invited to Join a Not-For-Profit Board – Yes or No?

By Simone Szalmuk-Singer

How do you decide whether to commit to an organisation as a board director? Perhaps you have just finished a leadership development course or maybe you expressed interest in becoming involved with a communal organisation. You may be someone who is approached regularly to join boards or perhaps this is the first invitation you received.

There is plenty of literature written about deciding to join not-for-profit boards. A basic google search will produce a plethora of helpful questions you can ask. In my view, after having served on a variety of not-for-profit boards in the Jewish community for over 10 years, determining whether or not to commit one’s time, comes down to considering the 3 Ps Purpose, Promise and Potential.

Directors of a not-for-profit organisations have legal duties and responsibilities which vary across jurisdictions. A discussion of the applicable legal obligations is outside the scope of this article, however knowledge of the relevant duties is assumed when adopting the 3 Ps framework for decision-making.

Purpose – Gain a clear understanding of the purpose of the particular organisation that you are considering. This may be more difficult than you anticipated as the organisation itself may not be clear on its purpose. Do not be surprised to discover variations among directors and staff in their conceptualisation of the organisation. Once you have understood the organisation’s purpose or their several purposes, decide whether it or they, are purposes you can identify with and be passionate about.

Promise – Clarify what is required and expected of you as a board director beyond your legal obligations. Do they want you for your skillset, your networks, your time, your donations or your ability to fundraise? Don’t be shy to ask these direct questions, even if it feels uncomfortable. It is better having these difficult conversations upfront rather than a year later when you and your board frustratingly realise you are at cross purposes about expectations. If you know what is expected of you, you can be clear on what your promise is to the organisation.

Potential – Determine the potential for impact. This is a two-fold process involving examining first, the impact potential of the organisation and second, your potential to generate impact.

In assessing the organisation’s potential for impact, consider whether the organisation is fulfilling its mission and can continue to do so? Inquire about strategy and the financial health of the organisation. Ask to see strategy related documents and financial statements. Gain an understanding of the structure of the organisation and its governance procedures. Examine its board tenure, CEO tenure and succession planning for professional and lay leaders. Speak to as many directors as you can and spend time with the CEO.

Unfortunately, vague missions, weak governance and financial stress exist across the sector around the globe. Whilst caution is advised in these situations, this does not necessarily have to end the process for you. Consider the potential for you to help the organisation develop what it needs to achieve its mission.

Every organisation can improve; it’s a question of degree, depending on their size, age and the willingness of the board to change and strive for better performance. Whilst joining a focused, well governed organisation will enable a strong return on investment of your time, you may be able to have the most profound impact in an organisation that lacks focus and governance but is ripe to change and seeks your help to do so.

A side note to the organisations reading this article and wondering how to attract desperately sought-after new board talent? Candour and transparency are strongly encouraged when faced with inquiries from potential board members. The fastest way to alienate new directors is by luring them in with inaccurate information about organisational financial health or the required time commitment. For instance, resist telling them they will be required to attend “just eight meetings a year” when it is really eight meetings a month! Be honest. You want directors who are prepared for the marathon that may be required to lead your organisation.

Finally, when deciding whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a board position, consider each board opportunity carefully. There are many ways to have impact as a leader, so ensure that you find the right direction for you.

Brené Brown, a highly respected voice in leadership, speaks of the huge need for daring and courageous leaders in today’s world. I wholeheartedly encourage you to be daring and courageous and take the leap into active leading. Be prepared that the journey is not always easy or fun, but know that it is incredibly fulfilling to be making a difference to our community and beyond. It is so easy to sit back and criticise communal organisations, whereas it is so much braver to step up and lead improvement, change and impact.

In the words of Brené Brown in Dare to Lead:

“At the end of the day, at the end of the week, at the end of my life, I want to say I contributed more than I criticized.”

Simone Szalmuk-Singer is Co-Chair of the Australian Jewish Funders, Director of Jewish Care Victoria, Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Jewish Women of Words and a senior mentor on various leadership development programs. She is also a Senior Fellow and member of the Senior Fellows’ Advisory Committee of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation Fellowship Program. This article was adapted from a speech given to graduates of the 2019 Jewish Care Victoria Yesod Leadership Development Program.