Like many mid-career professionals, I recently reached a point where I felt something was missing. When I relocated to Charlotte in 2015, I didn’t know a soul and was working remotely, so I had to be intentional about becoming engaged in the community. I started volunteering in a direct-service capacity — everything from reading to a third-grader to bottle-feeding kittens. It was incredibly rewarding, but I wanted to get involved at a higher level and use my business education and knowledge to help nonprofits transform in areas such as strategy, operations, and finance. After all, nonprofits are businesses, and they face the same challenges as for-profit businesses, such as raising capital and deciding which products/programs to grow and invest in. I was aware of nonprofit board service, and I knew people who served on boards, but I had no idea what type of organization I would seek out, what it meant to be a board member, or how to go about it.
Through some friends I met via the Wharton Club of Charlotte, I learned about Social Venture Partners, whose mission is to tackle inequality and promote nonprofit innovation through venture philanthropy. I joined SVP in 2021 as a partner and immediately began jumping into several short pro bono consulting engagements. That was the same year I joined my first nonprofit board.
I learned some important lessons about board service along the way. Here are some key questions to ask before you take on the responsibility of joining a board.
Is it a working board or a governing board?
Larger nonprofits, such as United Way or Goodwill, tend to have bigger boards that focus more on governance, but they won’t be very hands-on. At small, early-stage nonprofits, many of which have smaller budgets and staff, the board will be asked to take on more hands-on roles, such as managing the books, coordinating volunteers, and actively engaging in fundraising.
What is the current makeup of the board?
The ideal size for most working boards is 11 to 14 members. With more than that, it becomes difficult to schedule meetings, many of which require a majority of board members — a quorum — to vote on any major decisions. It’s important to understand where you’ll fit in on the board, including what unique skills you can bring that might fill an existing gap.
What am I passionate about?
This question might seem obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me when I started my journey. My goal was to join a board — any board. I discovered that I have a passion for reducing food waste. This prompted me to connect with a local nonprofit called Feeding Charlotte, and my conversations there eventually led to a board seat. My interest in food insecurity means I’m more engaged in the work of Feeding Charlotte and am more likely to share the stories of its impact with people in my network.
How often and when does the board meet?
Board-meeting cadence is often based on the size of the board. For larger boards, which are often comprised of corporate leaders, the board meetings tend to be during business hours. With smaller boards, where the board members may be community volunteers, meetings are often at night. You’ll want to understand how often the board meets and when and how that fits in with your schedule.
Is the nonprofit financially healthy and sustainable?
Every 501(c)(3) organization is required by the IRS to file a Form 990 every year, and it’s easy to find these forms on public websites such as Charity Navigator or ProPublica. Since board members have a fiduciary duty to the nonprofit, it’s important that you review and understand the organization’s financials before joining. Most nonprofits should have at least six months of operating expenses in reserve to provide a cushion in case of any unexpected loss in funding. There are other key documents to review, including the organization’s bylaws, strategic plan, and annual impact reports. Most nonprofits will have these documents published on their websites; if not, you should ask the executive director or board chair to provide them to you.
Board service is integral to the success of the nonprofit sector. These questions will help ensure that prospective board members know what questions to ask, so they can find organizations and boards that fit their backgrounds, talents, and interests.
Raj Merchant W01 is a director at Perficient. He serves on multiple nonprofit boards, including Feeding Charlotte and Helping Education. He is also the president of the Wharton Club of Charlotte.