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Are you ready?

Questions to ask the board before you join

The easiest way of ensuring that you have all the information you need before accepting a board position is to make yourself a list of questions. There are two types of questions you should ask: those aimed at the board and those to ponder yourself.

We have also included a checklist to help ensure you're ready.

The following is intended as a guide to what sort of questions you might want to ask the board – there are sure to be others specific to your own circumstance that you will want to add.

Questions for the board

1.    How much time is required of a board member?

Many new board members are shocked to discover just how time-consuming their new role will be. Make sure you ask how often the board meets, where it meets and how long the meetings are likely to ask. But don't just focus on board meetings. Remember you will also be required to conduct a thorough reading of the meeting agenda and supporting documents before meetings and attend other functions such as annual general meetings and fundraising events.

2.    Why do you want me on the board? What skills or experience are sought from me?

This is a vitally important question. Knowing the existing board's expectations will help you to assess whether you can capably fulfill the role asked of you. It may not just be about skills or experience. For example, board members who come from the business community to the not-for-profit sector are often expected to make some sort of financial contribution, bring in donations from the corporate world, or contribute fundraising ideas. Ask the question so you know what is expected of you.

It can also be helpful to ask why a board vacancy exists. People resign from boards for a huge range of very good reasons but if there is a problem that has caused a lot of members to resign in quick succession, you need to know about it.

3.    Who else is on the board? What are their backgrounds?

A properly functioning board requires a good mix of skills and experiences. If all the other board members have similar backgrounds to you, you may want to think about whether or not you can offer something extra to the board. Equally important is finding out the mix of skills of the existing board. Would you want to join a board that does not have a financially literate member, for example? It is not cheeky to ask for CVs – it makes good sense.

4.    Who is the head of the community group?

It is important that you ask for some information about the group's top staff member. You need to know who they are and how capable they are before you agree to join the board. The head of the organisation is responsible for carrying out the day-to-day management and will serve as a link between the board and the staff or membership. As such, he or she will be instrumental in its success. Again, consider asking for a CV.

5.    What is the community group's core business?

People considering joining the board of a community group are often already committed members of the group and are generally well aware of the organisation's roles and activities. But if you don't already have this information, this is the time to get it.

6.    What are the community organisation's board/governance policies?

Most of the rules relating to the workings of the board will be spelled out in the organisation's articles of association or constitution. It is often a good idea to make a careful reading of these before you agree to join the board. You may also ask for a copy of any internal policies to ensure you know and understand how the organisation operates.

7.    Do you have a job description for the board members?

If a community group has been operating for a while, chances are it will have developed a detailed job description to help incoming board members get a handle on the tasks they will be expected to perform. If the group hasn't yet developed such a document, you could ask an existing board member to jot down some of the roles he/she undertakes during an average month or year.

8.    May I inspect the meeting minutes of the board?

You should ask to see the minutes for as many years back as possible – some experienced board members suggest you go back as far as five years. Reading the minutes will give you a feel for the type of issues the board has to consider, as well as the type of decisions that have been made in the past. This will help you to decide if this is a board you could feel comfortable being part of.

9.    Has there been any litigation, or have there been complaints or breaches against the community group?

Even if you have been involved with a small group for many years, it is possible that there have been instances of legal action or complaints that you have not heard about. You need to ask about the group's legal history before you agree to join up. A ragged history of law suits speaks volumes for the type of board you are contemplating joining.

10.    Does the community group have insurance for its directors and officers? How much?

It is vitally important that you ascertain the level of insurance (if any) the organisation offers for its board members – and if you will be required to help pay for it. You may also want to find out the level of professional indemnity and public liability insurance the organisation has.

11.    How financially viable is the community group? May I have a copy of the financial position, plan and the budget?

As a board member, you will be custodian of the organisation's finances. You may even be held personally liable if things go really wrong. You need to be fully informed about the group's existing financial position before you agree to take on these responsibilities. See the Overview of your financial obligations help sheet for more information.

12.    Does the community group have a clear sense of where it's going and what it's there for? Does it have a mission statement? What is it?

Part of your role as a board member will be to help steer the community group towards its mission. To do this, you need to know what the mission is – and, even more importantly, you have to believe in it.

13.    What information or support will be available to assist me to do my job as a board member?

It is a good idea to find out what resources, if any, will be available to help you in your role. Resources could include orientation sessions, training, a formal or informal mentoring program, a staff member to provide administrative support, office equipment, stationery, compensation for costs, etc.

14.    How does the board evaluate its performance?

A healthy board is one that is continually evaluating its effectiveness. The evaluation may be formal, with a committee in place specifically to carry out this role, or may simply involve a periodic discussion about what the board is doing and where it is heading.

Questions to ask yourself before you join

The easiest way of ensuring that you have all the information you need before accepting a board position is to make yourself a list of questions. There are two types of questions you should ask: those aimed at the board and those to ponder yourself.

The following is intended as a guide to what sort of questions you might want to ask yourself – there are sure to be others specific to your own circumstance that you will want to add.

Questions for yourself

1.    Can I commit the time and energy the position deserves?

Making a realistic assessment of the time required to carry out the position fully, and how much you actually have to offer, is the first step in deciding whether or not you are willing to join a board.

2.    Am I prepared to devote sufficient time and energy to carry out my role diligently?

This is a significantly different question. Once you've made a realistic assessment of the time requirements, you need to make an honest assessment of your willingness to dip into your leisure and family time in order to fulfill the role.

3.    Why am I being approached to take on this position (presuming you have been approached)? Can I add value to this group?

Once you have found out why the group wants you – and what skills you will be expected to contribute – you need to decide whether you are a suitable candidate for a spot on the board. An honest self-assessment may be of more value than an assessment others have made of your skills.

4.    Am I the right person for this organisation at this point of time?

Different groups require different levels and types of commitment at different times. Personal circumstances also change over time. A person in the full throes of a demanding career may be less inclined (or able) to volunteer their time than, for example, a retiree looking for further challenges.

5.    What do I want out of this experience?

People join boards for a huge number of reasons. Some are looking for personal challenges, some want to expand their skills base, some are looking to make connections and others are just interested in helping a group or a cause they believe in. Usually, it will be a combination of all of these reasons that prompts a person to join a board. Assessing your own reasons will help you assess whether or not they are likely to be fulfilled by this group at this point in time.

6.    Can I hold this position with integrity and without conflicts of interest?

It is worth thinking about this issue before you accept a board position. By examining the functions and past decisions of the board you can assess if there are decisions you will encounter that could impact on your business or personal interests, or those of your family and friends. If there could be a conflict, it could be a good reason to opt out of the board. See the Handling conflicts of interest help sheet for more information.

7.    Can I trust, and work with, the other board members? Will this team be effective?

There is probably no question more important than this. The way you relate to your board colleagues will probably define the quality of your experience. And your ability to work together is of paramount importance to the effectiveness of the board.

8.    What is the reputation and track record of the community group's top staff member?

The board's role is to govern, not to manage. In order to govern effectively, the board needs to be able to rely on an effective manager/CEO.

9.    Does the community group clearly understand what its aims are?

An organisation that does not know where it is going is a difficult one to oversee: decisions will most likely be inconsistent and performance patchy. Getting it back on track will require hard work and may not be possible at all. Make sure you know what you're in for before you agree to do the work.

10.    Are the group's aims realistically achievable (even if ambitious)?

Like having no aims at all, an organisation that has unrealistic aims is setting itself up to fail. And failure is never a pleasant experience for a board or a board member.

11.    Do I share those aims?

Once you've found out that the group (a) has aims and (b) has achievable aims, you need to decide if they are aims that you believe in. If your heart's not in it, it is unlikely you will be able to enthusiastically contribute to the achievement of the group's aims.

12.    Have I spoken to the group's head, current board members and/or past board members about this position?

Asking someone directly about what will be required from you as a board member will help to take you beyond the abstract and paint a picture of what will be required. This is an invaluable tool in making a decision of whether or not this board is right for you.

Checklist

As a final step to ensure you are going into your board position with your eyes open, ask yourself:

  • Have you received a copy of the community group's mission statement? Are you committed to this mission?

  • Have you received a copy of the group's strategic plan? Are you happy to work within this plan for the good of the group?

  • Have you received a copy of the group's constitution, articles of association and/or rules? Do you understand them? Can you work within them?

  • Do you know about the group's history? Do you know its legal history? Are you satisfied that the group is run competently and thoughtfully?

  • Do you know what is required of you as a board member? Are you willing to contribute the time and skills necessary to meet the requirements?

  • Are you aware of your legal, financial and ethical responsibilities? Are you confident that you will be able to fulfill them? Is there insurance in place? If not, are you willing to take on the role without it?

  • Have you read the past minutes of board meetings? Do you understand the culture of the board and the decisions you are likely to face? Are they the sorts of decisions you would be prepared to make on behalf of the group? Are there any conflicts of interest that could arise?

  • Have you read the group's most recent annual reports, newsletters and media clippings? Are you satisfied with the achievements of the group and the direction it is heading in?

  • Have you examined the group's budget? Have you been provided with an auditor's report relating to the organisation's finances? Are you satisfied the finances are healthy and sustainable? Are there processes in place to ensure the finances are continually monitored?

  • Have you been provided with a summary of the group's sources of donations and grants? Do you have any ethical problems with the funding sources? Are the sources sustainable?

  • Do you understand the programs and projects that are carried out by the group? Are you aware of the group's public profile and is it one you are happy with?

  • Have you spoken to other board members? Are you confident that you can function well as part of the team?

  • Have you fulfilled any membership requirements as stated in the group's constitution or articles of association?
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