Start any new endeavor, learn a new skill or explore an unknown subject and you should have more questions than answers. The more interested you are in learning about that one thing, the more questions you will have.

So, when a donor who had recently made a significant gift to an organization asked me if she should accept an invitation to serve on their board, I stopped to search for the best answer.

First, I had another question. What skill set or influence will you bring to the board that will help them further their mission? While she was thinking about her answer, I fired off another question. Did they tell you why they wanted you to serve on the board or what skill they hoped you would bring?

Her answer, another question, provided a hint to the complexity of being a highly engaged and interested donor. “If I want to learn more about them and understand their funding needs, isn’t serving on the board the best way to gather information? And why do I need to provide a skill set?”

Joining the board of directors of an organization comes with actual governance and legal responsibilities. The Council of Nonprofits describes a board member’s responsibility as “the fiduciaries who steer the organization toward a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.”

That’s a complex way of saying they need focus on the big stuff, the foresight to look and guide into the future, loyalty and support of the mission and willingness to work to ensure the organization’s financial stability.

That stability comes from many donors. No one donor should make up a large part of an organization’s annual operating budget. Nonprofit organizations are public charities receiving tax-exempt status in exchange for serving the public good and being supported by the wider public.

In fact, the IRS does not like to see one donor represent more than one-third of a nonprofit organization’s operating budget.

Let’s get back to our donor who wants to learn more about the organization so she can improve her giving decisions. Serving on the board is one way, but comes with a great deal more work than just seeking answers to the donor’s questions. There is nothing wrong with a donor serving on the board as long as the donor embraces the work it entails.

What we need are other ways to learn about the organization. At the top of my list is ask questions and listen. Second on my list is watch for free information and, finally, read the organization’s newsletter.

Reading the newsletter is the easiest on the list. You make a small donation, and you probably receive the newsletter. So, look through it to see what catches your eye. Is there a client story that helps you understand the impact of their services, a graphical depiction of their financials, a list of their donors? Without spending a great deal of time, several times a year you can learn a lot about an organization. If none of those items are there over time, you will also learn a great deal about them.

Watching for free information means keeping your eyes open for articles in the media, local newspapers and magazines, advertisements, billboards, social media and more. It can come from anywhere. If the source is reputable, you’ve just added to your information trove.

I always consider direct questions and taking time to listen for the best way to gather information and make better decisions. Ask anyone you know who volunteers or serves as a board member about the organization. Pick up the phone and call the executive director. Ask fellow donors why they support the organization.

If you have questions, you deserve answers before you donate. You don’t have to serve on the board of directors to get the answers. You do have to take responsibility for putting your questions out there to find answers.

Questions are merely an indicator of curiosity. How you use the answers, well, that’s where you put a personal brand on how you give well.


Dawn Franks, CEO of Your Philanthropy offers advising services to families, businesses and foundations to enhance the giving experience and maximize impact. She writes a blog, the YP Journal, at Comments and questions are welcome. Send to

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