Most people I know would never promise to buy something without knowing much about the item. Yet, over the years, many friends and colleagues have agreed to serve on boards of nonprofit organizations without knowing much about the charity.
Someone, either the board member or the nonprofit -- or both -- often ends up disappointed.
Serving on a nonprofit board without investigating the nonprofit is pretty dumb. But, too often, we are flattered simply to be asked, knowing that nonprofit service is a recognition of our skills or accomplishments in the community. We feel honored. At other times, we make false assumptions about the organization which can be costly to both sides.
I was asked to serve on the board of an excellent organization that regularly performed activities that put it in a position to be sued. I was ready to serve, when I asked about board liability insurance. They had none.
No matter what the reputation or status of the organization, anyone considering a board seat should conduct his or her own due diligence to be sure that their service will be helpful to both parties. Due diligence means not agreeing to serve at the initial ask but, instead, thoughtfully speaking with board, staff and clients. It means touring operations and getting a feel for the essence of the organization.
Here is a brief list of items a person should explore before agreeing to serve on a nonprofit board:
* Request marketing materials, an agency history, and financial statements for at least the last three years. Is the organization solvent? Are major lawsuits pending? Are there personnel issues or conflicts that you need to know about?
* Be sure to ask what exactly is expected of you. Is there an attendance requirement? (If not, find out why and try to convince the group to have one.) Are you expected to support the organization financially? What committee work and events will you be part of? How much time is expected of you?
* Ask the recruiter why the board has picked you. What skills and contacts does the board expect you to bring? It is acceptable for an organization to want you if you are a high-ranking corporate executive. But you should be told what the organization expects of your access to corporate decision-makers.
* Can the group give you a concise mission statement? What is the board's vision for the agency, its clients, the community?
* Armed with this information, retreat to a quiet spot and ask yourself some hard questions. First and most important, do you really want to serve and for the right reasons? Is the organization right for you? Are you passionate about the cause? Is there the possibility of a long-term commitment? Service with an eye on the calendar is a telling sign that you may not belong.
Write down what you expect to personally gain from service to the organization. Be honest. Community work enhances self-esteem and fulfillment. What else would you like to get out of your service? Contacts with other community leaders? Recognition? Unless you know what these are, it is hard to gauge later whether you are truly advancing your personal growth.
On the flip side, what are you willing to give up to serve? Board service done right takes time and emotional energy. What are bottom-line life events which you are not willing to sacrifice under any circumstances? Do the significant others in your life understand what your board commitment entails? Are they willing to support your efforts?
Service to the greater good can be wonderfully fulfilling, enhancing the quality of life for oneself and the larger community. However, as with any relationship, one should enter it with both eyes open.
XTC (Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921;  392-3160.)