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Judging the Culture of an Organization

Tuesday, July 18, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sheri Ryan
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Article by Bob Harris, CAE posted with permission

“I’m eager to contribute time to a board or committee but first I want to know about the culture of the organization. How will I decide if it’s a good fit?” This was a question from a willing volunteer in a class of emerging leaders. With 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the USA, there is plenty of need for competent leaders. I replied, “Do your due diligence. You don’t want to find yourself in an organization in which you disagree with their practices or principles.”


A prospective volunteer should be inquisitive. Before signing up to donate time and resources, ask a few questions and review key documents.

Mission – All nonprofits should have clear and compelling mission statements. It will frame every discussion and decision. Does it compel you to contribute time?

Guiding Principles – Many organizations have identified values or guiding principles intended for board and staff. Do you agree with the values? Look for standards such as transparency, diversity, integrity and accountability.

Form 990 – Organizations file annually with the IRS. There is plenty that can be gleaned from Form 990. It is easy to determine the percentage of resources directed to the mission versus overhead. The form also identifies who is on the board, if they disclose conflicts of interest, income sources and information about the staff.

Website – The website is a trove of information, from programs and services to leadership and committee names. The site may reveal the organization’s comfort in using technology. Also check social media for usage and what’s being said.

Access to Information – With exception of personnel records and confidential contracts, board members will have access to the information necessary for good governance. Ease of access, clarity and brevity will be illuminating.

Orientation – The organization must transfer knowledge to new volunteers. Ask how this is accomplished. It may be conducted in a one-to-one briefing or an annual orientation. Are responsibilities documented and provided in a board manual?

Strategic Plan – The plan is the road map for volunteers and staff. It keeps the board focused as personal interests or distractions may arise. Is the plan current and easy to understand?

Interview – Ask for an interview to discuss your interests and talents. Come armed with questions. For instance, how many hours are required, are expenses reimbursed, and is the board insured?

The Team – Joining a board or committee is like joining a team. Review the roster to see who you know. Consider diversity --- how varied is the experience, background, gender, age and race of the volunteers? Reach out to a few directors to ask questions about board service, meetings and achievements.

Observe – Be an observer at a meeting. Ask if you can sit in without participating to watch the action. You’ll get a feel for board behavior and meeting outcomes. Consider the agenda, room set-up, meeting length, staff support and meeting locations.

Expectations – Ask about unwritten expectations. The bylaws and policies will describe responsibilities. Many organizations ask volunteers for more, such as raising funds, recruiting members or political involvement. It is best to know in advance what is expected.

Budget – Board members are responsible for setting a budget and protecting assets. It is key to know the size of both and whether or not safeguards exist. Reading the budget should identify priorities.

Outcomes – Ask about recent achievements. Is there a record of successes or struggles to be relevant? Is there proof of the mission being advanced?

Volunteer Experience – Do you sense the organization is simply seeking a free work force, or is it strategically providing a positive experience for volunteers? Are the positions open because volunteers burned-out?

There should be a comfortable match between volunteers and organizations seeking help.

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Note: Bob Harris, CAE, provides free governance tips and templates at


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