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Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Serving on a Nonprofit Board

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By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on March 06, 2020 11:22 AM

Many nonprofits actively seek out attorneys to serve as board members. Nonprofits appreciate an attorney's legal perspective, good judgment, ability to negotiate, leadership, and financial contributions.

Serving on a nonprofit can be a great opportunity for lawyers, too. It is a way to give back, make a real impact in your community, and work on personal and professional development. These benefits are not present when the attorney and the nonprofit are not the right match, however. Below are some questions to consider when deciding whether to accept a position on a nonprofit board.

What Are the Goals?

In order to be successful, you need to be a good match for the organization. Consider your goals and the goals of the organization. Specifically:

  • Do you believe in the cause enough to spend hard-earned time (and money)?
  • Are you willing to fundraise?
  • Is the non-profit well-run and financially responsible?

The last one is particularly important. You don't want to be a life preserver for an organization that has mismanaged funds or failed to be transparent financially. You want to be able to help guide the organization, not get involved after litigation is already inevitable. Fortunately, the organization should make their IRS Form 990 publicly available and have other finances clearly documented.

What Is Your Role?

As already noted, nonprofits appreciate your legal perspective. So much so that it is easy to blur the line between you serving on the board and representing them pro bono. It is therefore essential that you discuss the basics prior to agreeing to serve on the board. Document the scope of the relationship.

Be clear when you are putting on your attorney hat and when you are putting on your director hat. Otherwise, you may inadvertently waive attorney-client privilege or get into other legal trouble. You also don't want to give your opinion legal weight when speaking as a director or be ignored when giving legal advice. And make sure that the board understands your firm may not be able to represent the nonprofit in the event of litigation.

Can I Take Off My Attorney Hat?

You're an attorney, so chances are you are knowledgeable, detail-oriented, and can make a convincing argument. But remember that not all your skills as a lawyer are needed in the boardroom. Avoid being combative, feeling the need to speak authoritatively outside of your practice area, and being overly focused on the legal aspects of everything.

Watch Out For . . .

Being on the board of a nonprofit is well worth the effort, but it is not without risks. Be mindful of:

  • Conflicts of interest.
  • The appearance of improper benefit. This is why it is often best to be a volunteer board member, and to avoid representing the nonprofit for a fee if you are also on the board.
  • Malpractice Insurance. Check your coverage. Some will cover you when acting as a lawyer, but not a board member, and some won't provide any coverage if you are on the board of a client's organization.

Related Resources

What Separates a Lawyer From a Lobbyist? Can You Be Both? (FindLaw's Strategist)

4 Ways You Can Celebrate Pro Bono Week (FindLaw's Strategist)

Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations (FindLaw's Incorporation and Legal Structures)

Nonprofit Financial Statements (FindLaw's Incorporation and Legal Structures)

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