In my line of work, I often come across folks who want to do more for a charity or other nonprofit, but aren’t exactly sure how to go about it. When I mention board service, they are often intrigued but a bit uncertain. “I don’t have special expertise,” they may say, or “I’m not sure how to get started” or “I’m too busy with my job.”
Clearly, commitment is important when it comes to board service. It takes time and focus. But beyond that, and a good dose of enthusiasm, there aren’t many prerequisites. Moreover, there’s a whole host of reasons why nonprofit board service can be a highly rewarding experience (more to follow). No one has ever told me, I wish I hadn’t served. That being said, those who are interested should definitely move forward with their eyes open. There are practical considerations and legal ones, too. And your experience may vary quite a bit.
Board service takes many forms, depending on the needs and size of the organization. You may serve on a formal board of trustees or directors (the most common choice), but you may consider a nonprofit advisory board (often a regional affiliate of a national nonprofit) or a young professionals committee (increasingly popular as a way to engage the next generation of leaders in service). People can take on board service at the start of their careers, when they are at the top of their profession, or as a way to stay active in retirement. Charities need participants—and they are eager to accept all sorts of volunteers.
In the first of my periodic Philanthropy columns for Investment Quarterly, I thought it would be useful to provide some general guidance on this topic, starting with a pitch for board service (after all, nonprofit work is my passion!), and then noting some issues to consider and steps to take before joining up.
Number of U.S. Nonprofits2
Finances, Giving Amounts
Where Contributions Went4
Of Americans Age 16 or Over Volunteer5
Reasons for Board Service
Do Good and Feel Good
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Giving of your time and talents is surely a key to happiness. Your problems seem smaller and your power to overcome them greater when you feel capable and productive. There are many organizations that would benefit from your service and leadership. Think about what interests you—the arts, children, the environment, seniors. To be a truly successful board member, you must have passion for the cause for which you are championing.
Develop Your Skills
No matter your stage in life, there is always an opportunity to grow and learn. Board service sharpens many skills, including leadership, networking, communication and project management. Once you settle into a board, there will be ways to get more deeply involved based on your interests and skills, or even those skills you may want to develop further. For example, many nonprofits have an annual fundraising event and are often looking for board members to chair its committee. This opportunity would allow you to sharpen your project management and networking skills. Other nonprofits look to enhance their messaging through a communications committee or their financial well-being through a finance or investment committee. Members can join based on the experience they bring to the table, but also their interest in the area.
Broaden Your Professional Network
Board service is a great way to make connections outside of your work or personal environment. This is because most nonprofits recruit a well-balanced and well-connected group of individuals to play a leadership role. When you are exploring different nonprofits, take a minute to review who is currently serving on their board. Are these people you would like to get to know better? Do they represent companies or organizations that are of interest to you? Board service is a great way to get closer to people in a “low pressure” situation. You will naturally get to know them better over time, but you can also ask a fellow board member out for coffee or lunch to deepen a relationship.
Build Your Social Network
Board service also offers opportunities to socialize, whether before or after meetings, at fundraisers, site visits or service projects. Some of my closest friends are those I have met and served with over the years on a variety of boards and junior boards, as well as employees of the nonprofits themselves. There is an element of trust that is already imbedded in your relationship as you and your fellow board members care deeply about a common cause, and more broadly about giving back.
Add Variety to Your Life
For those lucky enough to have longer tenure at jobs and/or in relationships, joining a board can add color and flavor to your life. It is a way to get a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of an organization without leaving your “day job.”
NonProfits: Areas of Focus6
Laying the Groundwork
To me, the positives of board service are overwhelming. However, there is an important thought process that should take place before you dive in. First, you should assess the reasons you want to join a board, what you seek to get out of the experience, and how much time and effort you are willing to provide. Second, it’s prudent to conduct some due diligence on the organizations, and specifically the boards, that you are considering.
An effective way to learn about nonprofits is to speak with those who are already involved. Ask your friends and coworkers about organizations they care about and work with. It may make sense to join them at events sponsored by a nonprofit of interest. Or you could volunteer to get a taste for how they operate and whether the organization and its leaders resonate with you. Often employers have nonprofit board placement programs, so your company could be a fruitful source of intelligence and connection.
Once you have narrowed the field, there are a number of key questions you should be asking board members and nonprofit leadership to increase your comfort level.
What is the financial commitment?
Often called the “give/get,” there is usually an expectation that board members will give or get others to give a contribution annually. Don’t be shy about discussing this; the executive director or board chair will expect and welcome the question.
What is the time commitment?
Most boards meet on a quarterly basis and often have one fundraising event per year. Other nonprofits ask board members to serve on a committee (i.e., program, communications, audit, gala). Be sure to ask when, where and how often boards and committees meet to ensure it is convenient for your schedule. You will also want to ask what the term (or length) of the commitment is.
What makes a board member successful?
You want to make a difference in your role, so ask them what makes a great board member. Some nonprofits like very engaged board members; others call for less involvement. Understand the needs of the organization so you can deliver.
What “keeps you up at night”?
According to the Council of Nonprofits, “Board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards 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.”6In other words, they perform multiple functions that are of great importance to the nonprofit and its mission. As such, you need to understand key issues before committing to an organization. The greater the challenges, the more effective the leadership that is needed.
Do you have directors’ and officers’ insurance?
As you will be playing a fiduciary role, it is important to act with integrity and transparency in your role as a board member, and to put the interests of the nonprofit and its clients first. That being said, it is always good to ask what kind of liability coverage the organization has, in order to protect yourself in case of litigation.
If all of this interests you, you may want to start looking for opportunities now. Doubts or uncertainties that exist today won’t disappear in six months, and likely can only be resolved by action. You can get started with modest steps—attending charitable events, doing web research, reaching out to friends for ideas. You’ll likely find that the potential opportunities will exceed what you actually have time for, but can allow you to be discerning and find a nonprofit board with a close fit for your interests.