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20 Questions for Nonprofit Directors in 2020

August 30, 2020
Hilary Pearson

I received some valuable comments on my recent piece on the sevens sins of nonprofit governance. They prompted me to add a coda about what makes a “good” nonprofit board.

The seven sins of governance that I referred to essentially revolve around a lack of attention to the duty of care. This is a concept familiar in traditional and legal ideas of governance. The duty of care and the duty of loyalty are clearly explained in many useful nonprofit governance publications, such as Fiduciary Duty: 20 questions not-for-profit organization directors should ask, from Chartered Professional Accountants Canada. But it is enough for a director of a nonprofit organization to be familiar with fiduciary duty? It’s necessary but I think not sufficient.

Those who commented on my initial reflections on the sins of governance put their finger on elements that are less legal and more organizational. These have to do with the quality of the thinking that directors bring to the table, to the diversity and inclusivity of the group of directors as a whole, to their relations with each other, with the leadership and staff of the organization, and with the organization’s beneficiaries and partners. When we adopt the broader view of governance that is articulated in the Ontario NonProfit Network/Ignite IPS work on Reimagining Governance, we see the role of boards in that organizational context. Directors have specific legal responsibilities with which they must be familiar at a minimum. But beyond this, many board directors would benefit from examining themselves regularly in the context of the system that they inhabit.

What would this look like? What 20 questions would directors need to ask themselves if they were looking beyond their fiduciary duty? What would you want to know if you were thinking of joining a board of a not-for-profit organization in 2020?

  1. Leadership

Do the board leaders work well and closely with the leaders of the organization?Is there enough communication between them? Does the board leader engage without being overly intrusive? Does the staff leader provide enough information at the right level? Does board leadership renew itself regularly and transparently?

  1. Diversity and Inclusion

Do we have diverse perspectives around our table? Do we have enough of them? Do our discussions and decisions consider all perspectives? Do we have enough input and do we get it from “not the usual suspects”?

  1. Board as Employer

Does the board recruit thoughtfully and with attention to the needs of the organization? Does the board support and provide appropriate feedback to staff leaders? Does the board ask for staff and peer input to evaluation of the leader? Does the board have adequate policies and processes around whistleblowing, and harassment behaviour?

  1. Board as Critic

Does the board evaluate itself critically and regularly? Does everyone have a chance to evaluate their own contribution and that of the board as a group?

  1. Board as Creator

Do we have opportunities to use our imagination and creativity in service to the organization?  Do we generate new ways of seeing old problems? Are we brave enough to suggest we stop doing things when it’s necessary to do so?

  1. Board as Learner

Do we talk to members of our community (the people who work with/benefit from the work of our organization)? Do we hear regularly from experts, critics and partners?

If you ask yourself these 20 questions (and the 20 questions suggested by the CPA), you would be well equipped to know if you are joining a board that sees itself in its wider “ecosystem”, that pursues its tasks thoughtfully and that will use you well.

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