Questions every non-profit board member should be asking

Last week we featured two posts titled “Excuse me, but I have a few questions” and “Questions every non-profit executive director should be asking“. Today, we’re continuing this series of posts by looking at powerful questions that board members should be asking.

As I mentioned last week, Tony Stoltzfus explains in his book “Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Questions” that there are many reasons why asking questions is important. The following are three reasons that I highlighted last week:

  1. Asking empowers
  2. Asking develops leadership capacity
  3. Asking creates authenticity

The third reason — “Asking creates authenticity” — is one of the biggest reasons board members need to get in the habit of asking questions.

How many times have I seen board volunteers telling their executive director and fundraising professional what they think should happen or what they are most concerned about?  Well, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen it, then I wouldn’t be writing this blog every day.  🙂

In Tony’s book, he explains that “asking” rather than “telling” creates a situation that fosters trust and transparency between people. In my experience, board members are more influential and effective when they ask more questions and seek to truly understand what is really going on and why staff are suggesting and doing certain things.

However, it is important that board members understand their roles and responsibilities first before they transform themselves into “questioning machines”. It would be perceived as “micro-management” by most non-profit staff members if board members started asking all sorts of detailed questions around programming and operation.

This doesn’t mean that asking programmatic and operational questions aren’t appropriate, but doing so in the appropriate context is very important.

When it comes to strategic direction, policy and business-related things, I believe that many board members need to do a better job of getting involved and engaged. Asking good questions inside and out of the boardroom will help accomplish this objective.

One of the biggest non-profit boardroom challenges occurs when conversations are started, people talk an issue to death, and nothing every seems to get resolved. Tony Stoltzfus talks about the importance of SMART Goals in his book and offers a number of great questions that can re-focus your conversations into something more goal-oriented and actionable.

SMART is obviously an acronym for the following:

  • Specific — You can state clearly where you are going
  • Measurable — You’ve included a way to measure progress
  • Attainable — It is within your capabilities
  • Relevant — You care enough about this goal to make it a priority
  • Time-Specific — It has a deadline

The following are a few questions that Tony suggests might help you craft a SMART Goal:

  • What will it look like when you reach your objective? What is the outcome that you want?
  • How can you quantify this goal so we’ll know when you’ve reached it?
  • Are there any barriers or circumstances that preclude reaching this goal?
  • Why is this important?
  • By when will you reach the goal?

One pitfall that I believe board members need to avoid when using this approach is using it to interrogate staff. After all, isn’t “board engagement” the goal here? If so, then these questions should be used by volunteers to engage their fellow volunteers. Or these questions can be used by staff to get board volunteers involved and focused on action.

Of course, these are NOT the only questions that board members should be asking in the boardroom. Click here to see a wonderful list titled “Questions Nonprofit Board Members Should Always Ask” that our friends at put together.

How much “question asking” goes on inside of your boardroom? What have you found to be effective and engaging questions? What has been ineffective? Please use the comment box to share a few of your thoughts.

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


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