“Giving back” to organizations or causes you care about can take many forms. Some individuals choose to volunteer regularly, perhaps attending meal shifts at a local food pantry or mentoring a high school student. Others may volunteer on an ad hoc basis, for example, through their company’s annual volunteerism program or with their families around the holidays. Still others may choose to support nonprofits financially, either through annual gifts to selected nonprofits or by supporting family and friends’ fundraising efforts, such as in 5K races.
Beyond these meaningful contributions, I believe one of the most personally rewarding and impactful ways to serve is as a nonprofit board member. Indeed, for those who have not already done so, I would encourage exploration of board membership—which may be the ultimate gift of service to an organization, combining donations of time, expertise, passion and money.
Below are my “what, who, when, where, why and how” of board service, both in terms of getting involved and maximizing your effectiveness.
What Are the Roles of a Board Member?
While each board and junior board will have its own set of responsibilities and expectations, there are several general guidelines for all board members. The most straightforward roles of a board member are to provide time and money. In this case, time means attending board meetings (find out the cadence for your nonprofit—some may be quarterly, others more frequent) and fundraising events (usually one major event or gala and perhaps something smaller). Donating and fundraising are key components of serving on a board. The term “give/get” may come up when discussing the financial expectations of an organization. Board members are usually expected to commit to a certain dollar amount. “Give/get” implies that a board member can either make outright donations of the expected amount or achieve it through fundraising; however, it is important to be clear as to what your board’s expectation is, as some organizations ask for both—a flat donation and fundraising.
Nonprofit boards are generally not responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of an organization’s programs, but rather act as a governing body. This group of individuals is responsible for ensuring that the organization is adhering to its mission and maintaining its integrity. The board can develop the organization’s mission, set strategy, evaluate the nonprofit’s leadership (including the CEO or executive director), and should protect the organization financially and legally.
Along these lines, a nonprofit board member acts as a fiduciary, which entails a duty of care, loyalty and “obedience.” The duty of care requires that the board member be familiar with the organization’s finances and operations, and actively participate through board meetings, votes and reviews. Loyalty means acting solely in the best interest of the nonprofit, rather than in their own interest. (Organizations typically have a written conflict-of-interest policy and require board members to disclose any potential conflicts.) Finally, in observing their duty of obedience, board members must ensure that the organization is faithful to its mission and obeys applicable laws and regulations.
Who Is Board Service Right For?
Serving on a board (even a junior board) may sound intimidating, and while a level of commitment is necessary, it can also be a great opportunity for those ready to take the next step.
Have you been volunteering with or donating to an organization regularly for several years? Is there a cause or nonprofit that you’ve attended galas for, introduced your friends to, or that addresses issues that you are passionate about? Whenever I am approached at work about potential organizations that may be looking for board members, I first ask the inquiring person what they care about. It may sound trivial, but I believe it’s important to go with what “pulls at your heartstrings.” If you are able to articulate an organization’s mission, find yourself knowing the names of the organization’s staff members and even clientele, and feel moved and fulfilled in attending fundraising events, then board service may be right for you.
Your expertise may also make you a strong candidate for board service. Perhaps you have a CPA and can lend a hand reviewing an organization’s balance sheet, or you have a passion for event planning and can help plan a fundraising dinner. Or maybe you have a knack for HTML design and think the organization could use a website makeover. Nonprofits need a wide array of skills and perspectives to make things go smoothly.
Finally, perhaps you have conducted direct service volunteering (reading to children, serving meals, spending time with seniors, etc.) and you are ready to take things further, and learn more specifically how the organization functions. There is no single correct path to board service, but having the experience and/or expertise that we’ve described can help clarify your thinking and make you feel more comfortable stepping into this commitment.
When Is a Good Time in My Life for Board Service?
Board service is special in that it can be right for someone at any stage of life. For young professionals, it may be a good way to dip their toes into leadership and responsibility. For those in the middle of their career, it can help tap into passions outside of work and family. And for those late in their career or in retirement, it’s a vehicle to share skill and life experience.
That said, committing to serving on a board also means committing your time, and it’s important to understand the organization’s expectations. Most senior boards meet at least quarterly or every other month and expect board members to attend one or two events per year. Other organizations may be newer and need board members to roll up their sleeves and be more involved in development. A common understanding of the time and financial obligations involved can be crucial to both you and the nonprofit.
Where Can I Find an Organization?
Often, individuals have an organization in mind when considering board service. Others may cast a wider net to identify the right match. In that case, even though there are thousands of nonprofits operating nationally, I would suggest searching locally. This allows you to meet with the organization’s leadership and board, consider volunteering if you have not done so already, and ensure that you will be able to attend meetings and events more easily. Local service also allows you to be more connected to the community in which you live or work. Certain organizations that specialize in board placement can help refine your search (see Resources on page).
National Council of Nonprofits: A resource and advocate for nonprofit organizations. Its “Tools and Resources” page details various issues of interest, including boards and governance. (councilofnonprofits.org)
Boardsource: Helps nonprofit boards set strategic priorities and structure governance. See the “Topics” page for information on board roles and responsibilities. (boardsource.org)
BoardnetUSA: Digital service that matches board candidates with nonprofits. (boardnetUSA.org)
Points of Light: Online community connects nonprofits, businesses and individuals in seeking to address societal issues. (pointsoflight.org)
United Way: Mobilizes the “caring power of communities to advance the common good”; clearinghouse for service opportunities. (unitedway.org)
VolunteerMatch: Database of volunteer opportunities, searchable by location. (volunteermatch.org)
Why Board Service?
In addition to providing service and expertise to an organization, there are many reasons why board service can be beneficial to participants. First and arguably foremost, it can be deeply rewarding. Nonprofit organizations work with limited budgets and resources; having people who are deeply supportive and can commit time, expertise and money is invaluable to them. For the board member, attending fundraising events and participating in service projects can become more meaningful when you are part of the leadership team.
Serving on a board also allows you to leverage your specific skills. Most boards ask their members to join subcommittees for fundraising, membership, investment and other matters. By serving on a board, you have the opportunity to share your day-job professional skills with an organization that may not have a paid staff member who focuses on that area. It can also give you the opportunity to explore skills that you may not get to use during your day job, such as planning an event. More broadly, board service provides a direct way to work on leadership, communication, teamwork, problem-solving and resource-development skills.
Board service is also a great way to broaden your professional network. The peers on your board may be in your industry, allowing for networking opportunities. Or perhaps your fellow board members are in entirely different professions, allowing for new contacts. Chances are, if you are serving on a board together, you will likely find similar interests outside of the organization that you care about.
How Can I Be an Effective Board Member?
Committing to serve on a nonprofit board means committing to the nonprofit itself. While you are not responsible for administering the programs, you are responsible for supporting the nonprofit’s mission and doing so, hopefully, with conviction and passion. An unspoken or unwritten responsibility of a nonprofit is to share the organization with your network for two reasons: 1) to raise awareness of the organization’s work and 2) to identify future donors. Time is a limited resource and if you are committing to an organization, it should be one that you are excited to talk about. In my view, being an effective board member also means being honest with yourself and being comfortable with this commitment.
The choice of board service depends on your personal priorities and availability. I believe it’s important to be thoughtful in your choices, and to conduct extensive due diligence on the organization you wish to serve and its effectiveness in achieving its stated goals. Taking preliminary steps such as talking with board members and participating in volunteer activities may also make sense. Moreover, it’s a good idea to review financials to gauge the health of the organization. Such efforts can also provide insights into whether you would be comfortable working with the nonprofit and whether your particular skills could help to fulfill its mission. In the end, I believe the effort can be well worth it—to ensure that you have a positive experience and that you can make a real impact where you believe it is needed most.