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New to a Board? Here’s What You Should Ask

New to a Board? Here’s What You Should Ask

By Howard Donkin, Julleen Snyder, and Erin Welch

As a board member, your fundamental role is to oversee the implementation of the not-forprofit’s mission. This includes exercising your fiduciary duty to ensure that the organization’s
financial resources are effectively managed and sufficient to assure the organization’s longterm financial viability.

For many new board members, this is a daunting task. Where do you begin? We’ve compiled a list of the documents, training and resources that you need in order to perform your duties as a board member. If you haven’t received these from the not-for-profit for which you serve, you should consider asking for them.

Basic Information. Each of these documents is a key source of information about whether the organization is fulfilling its mission and managing its funds wisely. Be sure to ask for, read through, and ensure you understand each of the following:
The board member’s job description, including what’s expected of you as a board member from fundraising to committee participation

  • Bylaws
  • The current strategic plan
  • The organizational chart for the non-profit’s staff
  • Minutes for previous meetings
  • Committee overviews and assignments
  • Board contact information
  • The current budget and recent financial statements
  • The organization’s most recent Form 990
  • The organization’s mission, vision and values
  • Current materials describing the organization and making a case for support
  • Current messaging for board member use

Contextual Orientation. Now that you have the basic information, you need to understand how it maps to the organization’s operations. In order to effectively understand the context in which the documents above operate, you should:

  • Take a tour of the not-for-profit facility or facilities
  • Introduce yourself to key staff members
  • Ask them questions about how their efforts support the organization’s mission and strategic plan

Adequate Training. Most not-for-profit board members scratch their heads over not-for-profit financial statements. After all, they use different terms than those for for-profit entities, are formatted in different ways, and even account for assets, liabilities, revenues and expenses differently. Even board members with banking and finance backgrounds can find the differences confusing. However, understanding the results of a nonprofit audit or financial review is critical.
To make sure you are effective, consider:

A Sounding Board. Regardless of how effective your training is, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned when you only use it once a month. Sometimes asking questions during board meetings, particularly if you are concerned they sound naïve or simple, can be intimidating. To counteract this, ask an experienced board member to serve as a sounding board. Having someone you can call to ask questions in advance of the meeting can provide needed context and help ensure you are acting effectively in your role. Have you experienced an effective on-boarding practice? Share it with us and we will pass along any tips we get in a future On Board newsletter

About the Authors:
Julleen Snyder, Howard Donkin, and Erin Welch, partners at Jacobson Jarvis, have over 50 years of experience helping not-for-profit organizations by providing nonprofit audit, tax, and consulting services. They can be reached at julleen@jjco.com, howard@jjco.com, and erin@jjco.com.

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