Joining a Nonprofit Board
If you are considering board service, make sure you have the answers you need. Use the board’s culture and structure, as well as the overall health of the organization you’re considering to guide your decision-making process.
Why people join nonprofit boards
People have countless reasons for wanting to become nonprofit board members. Some are focused on giving back; others want to receive something in return; and still others want to do both. Some motivations are highly personal, even emotional, while some are purely rational. Sometimes people make the decision independently after looking for a board position, and sometimes the organization actively recruits them.
Most individuals have well-informed, honorable intentions, and with guidance, they have the potential to have fulfilling board experiences. But occasionally, motivations are misinformed, wholly self-serving, or simply not constructive. It is absolutely acceptable to be guided by personal motivations. After all, you are devoting your own time to this task. Just be sure that personal benefit is not the only reason you want to join a board. Your commitment to the mission of the organization must be the primary consideration.
Consider the following motivations. Do you see some of your own on this list?
The desire to be useful
- You have a specific cause that is important to you and you want to be active in supporting it.
- You have specific skills that could help an organization stay or become more viable.
- You want to “give back” and do your civic duty.
- You are concerned about your community and want to have a say in its future.
- You are concerned about a particular organization and believe you can help turn it around and make it successful again.
- You have the time to commit to a meaningful activity.
- You are a leader and want to share this skill.
- You have volunteered in an organization and now want to have a larger impact on its future.
- You are building your career, and being a board member would allow you to learn new skills or practice current ones.
- You think nonprofit board experience would be considered a plus on your resume or in your academic credentials.
- You want the opportunity to network with like-minded or otherwise interesting people.
- You are retired and want to start a new “career” helping a nonprofit; serving actively on a board would give you meaningful work with a flexible schedule.
- You are new to the community and want to make friends.
- You want a challenge, and board service is something you have never tried before.
- You want to be an insider and have a direct influence on how a nonprofit functions.
- You are interested in a job with an organization, and serving on its board would be a way to get to know it first.
- You want to add fun to your life, and working with a team “doing good” would accomplish that.
Some motivations are worth examining and questioning because they are not solid reasons to join a board.
- A friend asked you, and you feel you can’t say “no.”
- Your company is pressuring staff to serve on boards, and you feel you must do so to keep your job.
- You made a contribution to a nonprofit, and now you want to make sure you have a say in how the money is used.
- You feel guilty because you have not given enough to your community.
- You are lonely and need a new activity to get out of the doldrums.
What organizations need from board members
Different nonprofits will have different expectations of their board members based on their organization’s size, mission, or particular challenges. Understanding what an organization needs will help you match your motives, interests, time commitments, and personal goals to that organization, so that you can make a valuable contribution.
Grantmaking foundations are in the enviable position of giving away money. A foundation board approves all grants that are awarded to public charities. In small foundations, board members may actually read grant applications. Board members are not expected to raise funds, however.
You might join the board of an advocacy organization because its cause is your passion. You’ll need good political instincts and lobbying skills. Raising awareness for your issue and helping get bills passed are likely to be among your responsibilities.
Are you active and visible in your profession? Board members of professional associations usually are elected by the entire membership. Serving on an association board tends to be a badge of accomplishment.
All-volunteer organizations (AVOs)
If you join the board in this type of organization, be prepared to work hard. There is no professional staff, so board members wear several hats and keep the wheels turning while providing governance oversight. You need to be a team player who understands which hat to wear when. You must understand when to act alone and when to make decisions as a group.
Arts and cultural organizations
It is often considered prestigious to serve on the board of a museum or performing arts institution. Board members are expected to give generously and be active fundraisers. While the opportunity to attend performances and events may make board positions appealing, these institutions also want active board members who are passionate about the mission.
When considering the board of a nonprofit hospital, it’s important to become familiar with relevant IRS and other legal regulations, such as providing community benefit and keeping patient records confidential. When a hospital is part of a health system, you also must be aware of the hospital board’s relationship to the system’s board. For those who followed the healthcare reform debate, you have a glimpse at some of the big issues hospital board members face.
Colleges and universities
Higher education boards govern institutions with complex structures while being mindful of the importance of educational quality. Board members deal with the intertwined needs of university, faculty, administration, and students. Keep in mind that private and public governance structures and responsibilities differ somewhat.
If you are considering serving on an alumni association board, you should know that fundraising is its primary purpose. Board service also will give you an opportunity to stay in touch with college faculty and friends while showing gratitude to the institution that prepared you for your professional life.
Most supporting organizations are fundraising bodies for the parent organization; an example is a foundation associated with a public university system. Anyone interested in serving on the board of a supporting organization should enjoy fundraising. Please note, as well, that this board’s efforts will need to be coordinated with the parent nonprofit, which means that it alone cannot determine which programs to support.
Chapters of federated organizations
Chapter boards usually oversee field activities in their local communities, while the national board sets overall direction. As a chapter board member, you will need to follow instructions from headquarters, and you must accept that part of your board’s fundraising results will likely be shared with the national organization.
International, national, regional, or local organizations
Board composition and selection are different depending on these organizations’ scope and reach. You’ll need familiarity with the issues, whether they are high-profile global questions or local issues that result in heated discussions. It might be wise to begin with a local organization and then expand your reach as you gain experience.
Big budget or small budget organizations
Budget size, like mission scope, often indicates the complexity of issues board members will address. Your involvement as a strategic leader or as hands-on member may relate to budget size. The more complicated the financial situation, the more familiar you need to be with nonprofit finance and accounting principles.
Contact the Organization
- After finding an organization that interests you, get to know it better. Look at its website. Attend programs, if that’s an option. Visit the offices. Gather as much information as you can about what the organization does.
- If you are confident that the organization is a good match for you, make an appointment with a board member or the chief executive and indicate your interest in joining the board. They may want you to join a board committee or volunteer in another capacity before you are nominated for board service. A willingness to do so will help your chances.
Find an Organization
- Keeping in mind the types of organizations described in the previous section, determine what kind of organization you would like to be affiliated with. What mission areas are you most interested in? The choices are numerous.
- Take advantage of local volunteer centers, United Ways, or regional associations of charities to start locating nonprofits. Consult www.guidestar.org, a comprehensive database of nearly two million nonprofit organizations searchable by location, mission area, or name.
- Find board vacancies on nonprofit job posting sites such as LinkedIn Board Connect, Idealist.org, Bridgespan.org, and Allforgood.org.
- Prepare questions to ask. Focus on mission, financial stability, constituents and customers, and board structure.
- Make sure that organizational representatives ask many questions about you. You want to be part of an organization with a well-planned process that treats recruitment as a two-way street. Both parties should get what they are looking for. Being willing and able is not enough. You must fill a need on the board at a given moment. You may bring marketing acumen to the mix at just the right time, for example, or the board may be trying to fill a gap in financial expertise. Effective boards combine various skills, talents, backgrounds, and perspectives, and they often use a matrix of their present composition and future needs as a recruitment tool.
Understand an Organization’s Expectations
- Educate yourself — and expect the organization to educate you — on the responsibilities and liabilities of board members. Visit BoardSource’s website for information on board members’ roles and obligations.
- Be sure you understand the organization’s expectations of its board members. What are the fundraising and personal contribution obligations? What is the meeting attendance policy? How many committee assignments must you agree to accept?
Demonstrate your interest
Every board that interests you may not have the same fond feelings for you. Remember that board service is a two-way street. A good match meets the priorities of both sides. It also may be possible that you’re not the best match given the board’s current needs, but you might be a good choice later. Don’t give up if you truly feel you have something to contribute. Make a good case to the board and the chief executive that you are serious about joining the board. Whether you are making the first move or you are being recruited, take this approach:
- Be proactive, ask questions, and answer questions honestly.
- Show that you have studied the organization and are familiar with its activities.
- Explain how you want to contribute.
- Bring up your previous experience as a leader.
- If there is no match today, be clear that you want to be considered if the board’s needs change.
101 Resource | Last updated: June 7, 2016