If you are interested in board service, the first step is to identify the types of organizations that interest you and learn what they expect from their board members.
Below are some practical steps to help you find the right board service opportunity for you.
Find your passion
The first and most important step is to identify the type of organization with which you want to be involved. Is there a particular cause or mission that you are passionate about? Is there an organization for which you’ve been volunteering that might have an opportunity to get more involved? Do you donate funds to a cause that you’d like to support with your talents?
The following are common nonprofit organizations’ mission areas. Do any call to you?
- Animal protection and welfare
- Arts, culture, and humanities
- Community improvement
- Disability services
- Economic development
- Historical preservation
- Human/social services
- International development/foreign affairs
- Nonprofit journalism
- Public policy/research
- Religious institutions/faith-based organizations
- Science and technology
- Social justice
- Sports and recreation
- Youth development
Instead of a particular mission area, are you interested in organizations that serve a certain community or geography? There are many nonprofit organizations that focus their work on a particular community. To see a list of organizations located in a particular community, search for that location on Guidestar.org. Your local United Way, federated giving, or human service chamber will also have information on nonprofit organizations in your area.
Consider your expertise
Many boards seek members who have professional backgrounds, expertise, or lived experience in the organization’s mission area. Why? Because their expert opinions and ability to assess an issue adds value to the board’s decision-making process. Individuals with diverse experience and expertise may be able to detect a detail or raise a question that otherwise would go unnoticed or ignored. Including board members with such backgrounds in the organization’s mission areas adds depth to the board and can promote additional creativity and innovation.
If you are a professional or technical expert and feel that a board would benefit from your expertise, don’t hesitate to let the organization know. But keep in mind that there is a difference between serving on the organization’s board and offering your professional services to the organization. In all-volunteer organizations (organizations without paid staff), board members with expertise in a particular area can find themselves in the difficult position of trying to define their roles as active and contributing board members while also being asked to perform professional services, pro-bono. In many cases, those with a technical background may benefit the board best as advisors rather than as direct-service providers.
Learn more about how your expertise can benefit the board and the organization below:
A professional with advocacy experience has a valuable understanding of how advocacy strategies and campaigns can support a particular issue or cause. You can help the board think through how expanded board participation in advocacy can help support the mission, as well as help connect the organization’s staff with key decision makers.
An attorney can serve as a source of legal expertise, help the board make sound judgments, and provide insight when policies are being drafted. An attorney can ensure compliance with laws and regulations and ensure that board documents meet necessary standards. However, an attorney who is a board member should not be the board’s or the organization’s official legal representative; this would create conflicts of interest. It is better to retain outside counsel for legal services. Before you accept a position on a board, make sure both sides agree on your role.
Finance, budgeting, accounting
Professionals in business and finance can make valuable contributions to board decision making. Every board member does not have to be a financial wizard, but, with some business acumen on the board, the organization can make sound decisions and seize opportunities. Boards must understand the financial implications of their actions. But unacceptable conflicts of interest will arise if you agree to function as an investments manager or accountant or if you offer your firm’s services to conduct an annual audit. The organization should use the services of staff or outside consultants for its financial needs.
Marketing, human resource, and other management professionals
If the organization you are interested in has professional staff to handle these functions, be respectful of their roles. You can still provide valuable assistance to the board as it focuses on major organizational issues such as branding, crisis management policies, and compensation philosophies. You should be able to guide the board discussion while staying away from day-to- day operations.
Check out our free resources developed in partnership with the Taproot Foundation for more information on how marketing and human resources professionals can contribute their professional skills to a board.
Foundation leaders and program officers can benefit greatly from serving on boards of organizations that they fund or may fund in the future. It is an excellent way to find out how your money will be spent, how efficient the organization is in carrying out its mission, and how to have an impact on the organization that receives your dollars. In turn, the board benefits from direct feedback from a funder while proving firsthand that money is being well spent. Concerns about conflict of interest usually arise between you and your foundation, not necessarily between you and the board.
Technology professionals understand how technology can be used as a tool to achieve greater impact. It is important to help the organization identify how technology can be leveraged to meet programmatic needs as a part of strategic planning and decision making, and to provide access to pro-bono technology resources.
Real estate professionals provide expert opinions on significant real estate decisions, such as a capital campaign or major leasing decisions, and they help connect the organization with strategic opportunities for expansion or low-cost space options.
For additional information, review our member resource, Providers of Professional Services as Board Members, and our publication, The Business Professional’s Guide to Nonprofit Board Service.
Understand the organization’s needs
Serving on a board is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Organizations need board members who are actively engaged in board decision-making and who have specific skill sets, experience, and connections. Different organizations have different needs for board members depending on their current goals. As such, it is very important to read the job description/profile carefully and ask questions to make sure you will be able to meet the organization’s needs.
Once you know the mission area to focus and which type of organization best suits your interests, availability, and personal goals, the next step is to identify a board service opportunity.
For more information about serving on a board, check out these additional resources:
Free Community Resource