The Most Important Question You Should Ask Before Joining a Board

Over the years, I have served on various non-profit boards to support initiatives ranging from domestic violence prevention to innovation in middle-school education, community engagement, and the arts. Without exception, each organization gave me a chance to give back in a meaningful way and gain valuable new skills. However, with each successive board position I became more convinced that asking a single question before committing to join would help predict how effective I could be.

That all-important question is this: How do you measure impact?

Typical board member duties for a non-profit are relatively easy to predict, from assisting with fundraising (and donating money yourself), attending events, cultivating prospects and promoting the overall cause. Often, however, these duties dominate discussions between organizations and prospective board members, but the “impact” conversation may not be a top priority -- and sometimes isn’t discussed at all. Yet this is arguably the most important topic to cover.

The most impactful non-profits are those with strong boards with shared accountability for achieving goals that advance the organization’s mission in a meaningful way. If there is no way to measure impact -- and a non-profit is reticent to implement the processes necessary to do this -- then your effectiveness as a board member will likely be limited and impossible to measure. That is not a recipe for success, not to mention personal fulfillment.

One of the main reasons that non-profits may fail to measure impact is because their board members are not involved in the operations of the organization. North Highland, a business consulting firm with a philanthropic mission focused on economic empowerment, has found this to be a frequent problem no matter the non-profit or the type of work they do. Our pro-bono engagements have covered the gamut of program management, strategy, data and analysis, employee engagement and change management, and we consistently find a lack of board member involvement in operational matters.

When it does pro-bono consulting for a non-profit, North Highland  wants to meet as soon as practical with the non-profit’s board chair and select committee members to understand how they engage in the operations of the organization. Often, what we find is that they don’t feel they have the subject matter expertise to get involved. That avoidance can unintentionally put the non-profit on a slippery slope toward mission creep and symptom-solving, leading to staff burnout and cash flow problems.

Funders, including private and corporate foundations, want to know the non-profits they support are delivering measurable outcomes and sustainable, long-term impact. The board is an important driving force to make sure this happens.

Below are four simple things board members can do to play a more active role in bolstering the effectiveness of the nonprofits they serve.

  1. Channel your inner child: Ask staff why or why not instead of questions which return a yes or no This often yields richer conversations and new solutions to languishing problems.
  2. Help make the connection between measurement and funding: Smart boards know that funders are more inclined to renew grants when they see demonstrable results. Help non-profits understand the value of metrics, invest in software tools that analyze program results, and use data to prove the case for funding.
  3. Prioritize ruthlessly: Boards can help improve non-profit effectiveness through rigorous priority setting and goals. Those were among our key recommendations in an engagement with a United Way agency in the southeast that was tapping into cash reserves to survive, but hadn’t refreshed its strategy in decades.

  1. Embrace the competition: Boards that require their non-profit to benchmark against peers help uncover opportunities for improvement, scale and collaboration. North Highland helped a Denver-based nonprofit to do this, interviewing leaders from six peer organizations to compare organizational profiles, value chains and success metrics.

If you serve on a non-profit board, speak up. Your business expertise is needed and will have lasting value. Successful non-profits are those that embrace shared accountability for success, and funders are more likely to prioritize organizations that can show measurable, impactful results that are aligned with their mission.