The most important non-profit board responsibility

questionsOver the last few months, I’ve found myself doing a lot of boardroom trainings on the subject of “Board Roles & Responsibilities“. When facilitating this training, there are two different slides talking about the board’s collective responsibilities and the other illustrates individual board members’ responsibilities. Listed on both slides at the top of the list is the responsibility of “asking questions“.
At the end of tonight’s training, I went out for a nice steak dinner, but one thing stuck in my head and nagged me all night.

Is the list of roles/responsibilities in a particular order? If so, could it be that ‘asking questions’ is the most important of the responsibilities?

So, I tried to think of other responsibilities that might be more important:

  • Fundraising & securing resources
  • Connecting others to the agency’s mission
  • Advocating and talking about the agency throughout the community
  • Making sure laws and regulations are followed
  • Planning

While these aren’t all of the responsibilities of a non-profit board volunteer, it certainly is a good number of them. In the final analysis, all of these roles/responsibilities are important, but I honestly don’t see any of them as important as asking questions.
questions2Of course, we aren’t talking about asking questions that lend themselves to micro-management of staff. Here are just a few important questions that good boards ask:

  • Where is this agency going? What will it look like in 5-years? 10-years? 15-years? 20-years?
  • Is our organizational mission still relevant? What should it be?
  • What are our shared values?
  • What are our goals?
  • What are the community’s needs and gaps that the agency strives to address?
  • Are we using donor dollars in the manner we promised?
  • Is the agency achieving the program outcomes it promised to donors?
  • Is the organization structured in such a way to achieve what it needs to achieve?
  • Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is there a better way?
  • Do I have a conflict of interest? What should I do to mitigate my conflict?
  • Is this ethical? Is it legal? Even if it is, will supporters view it as otherwise?

rubber stamp2I tried to picture what a non-profit board might look like if it didn’t ask questions, and these words all came to mind:

  • rubber stamp
  • disengaged
  • Enron
  • WorldCom
  • Tyco

Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve tackled this subject from a number of different angles. Here are just a few posts I’ve written on the subject of asking questions:

I dunno! What do you think? Are some non-profit board responsibilities weighted more heavily than others? If so, where does “asking questions” rank?
If board members need to collectively and individually get better at asking questions, how do you train for that? Or is it something you recruit for?
Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

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