What to know before joining a board

A man addressing a team of people in a meeting

Serving on a board can be a great way to share your career knowledge. Here are six questions to ask before taking a board position.

After retiring from a full-time career, many people develop new hobbies, travel, and do volunteer work. But there’s another way to put your hard-won career skills to use: by joining an organization’s board of directors.

How can you know if joining a board is right for you? Here, Debbie Romano, who helps design and directs charitable planning solutions for clients and nonprofit organizations as a lead fiduciary specialist with Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management, shares six questions to ask before accepting a position on a board of directors.

1. What do you know about the group?

“Do your research,” Romano says. “That’s the very first step.” Start with the organization’s online presence, which should present the group’s mission, vision, objectives, activities, and community impact.

Another resource is the GuideStar database, which can provide information about nonprofit groups’ governance, leadership structures, and finances. The database also includes ratings, offering a chance to read about others’ experiences with the nonprofit as well as any negatives, such as legal issues facing the organization.

2. Do you share the same goals and values?

Once you know the group’s mission and values, consider whether you would be passionate about the work. Do you believe in the organization’s mission? Do you support the work it does to achieve that mission?

For example, an avid reader might enjoy volunteering for the board of an adult literacy group; an artist might find satisfaction working with an arts nonprofit. Finding a connection to a cause you already support could make joining the board feel more natural. “You should know, without thinking about it too much, why you’re doing this,” Romano says.

3. What will your responsibilities be?

“Understand the expectations around your role spelled out as best you can,” Romano says. Key questions to ask: What is the board’s relationship to the executive team — how do you work together? Will you be reviewing performance? Will you be expected to serve on a committee? What will be the working relationship with other board members, and how will their roles impact yours?

The answers to those questions can help you determine one key detail: “Is the work going to be enjoyable and meaningful?” Romano says. “And how much are you willing to give, especially when you probably have other priorities? You should feel comfortable that they’re not asking too much of you.”

4. What are the risks?

Board members have legal and professional obligations, which may include fiduciary responsibilities. As part of your due diligence, consider asking pointed questions about the group’s or company’s financial standing and structure.

“Are there checks and balances and well-documented procedures?” Romano asks. This can be especially important if you would have a financial oversight role — you’ll want to know whether the group has directors and officers (D&O) insurance, which can help protect board members from personal liability in the event a serious issue arises.

5. How does the current board function?

It can be a good idea to get a first-hand look at how things operate — ideally by sitting in on a meeting of the board or executive committee.

“How do they get along and communicate with each other?” Romano asks. “You need to understand whether you’re going to fit in with how they do business and the other personalities.” If you can, meet with the executive director and a board member. Ask a lot of questions, including one of Romano’s favorites: “What do you wish you knew about this group before you joined?”

Other items to note: who sits on the board, the level of diversity, and any other details that are important to you. Is the group’s business conducted in a professional manner? If the board has had a lot of turnover, it’s worth asking why. “One question that’s hugely important,” Romano says, “is whether paid staff members are viewed as partners in accomplishing the mission. You want to know that the staff and the board collaborate well.”

6. Do you have the time?

Board membership almost always involves attending meetings as well as responsibilities such as committee assignments and attendance at certain events like fundraisers or benefit galas. Make sure you understand the details of the commitment: how often meetings or events occur, what they entail, and how long they last. If you dread the time commitment, it could be a sign that it’s not the right choice for you.

“When it is a good fit, you’ll want to be there,” Romano says. “You’ll look forward to the meetings and the fundraisers. You’ll want to tell others about it, get more people involved, and become an ambassador.”

Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management (WIM) is a division within Wells Fargo & Company. WIM provides financial products and services through various bank and brokerage affiliates of Wells Fargo & Company.