So you want to join a nonprofit board. Whoa, back up, really? That’s terrific, but can we explore the why before we get to the how? Hopefully you are driven to seek a seat at the table in order to take personal action using your experiences, skills and connections to solve a problem or address a challenge in your community or anywhere else on the planet. Think hunger, homelessness, poverty, a particular health crisis, uneven educational opportunities, unsafe relationships, aftermath of wars, as a start. Let’s begin with the assumption that you are joining others driven by the same degree of passion. If they aren’t . . . that is a topic for another day. You are going to develop an intimate knowledge of how your fellow board members analyze opportunities, how they communicate, what talents they bring to the table, and how you might learn from them, and utilize their connections to expand your own network. These are good things, and you will be bringing your own value adds to share.
Do you know what it means to be a board member for a public charity? Do you understand the fiduciary, fundraising, volunteering and advocacy responsibilities that are expected by law and by the public? Not all boards introduce and onboard with the same degree of clarity, so you need to know what kind of a board and what kind of participant you want to be. There are online resources to learn more and help you answer these questions, and in some communities you will find organizations that offer related workshops for preparing to become a nonprofit board member.
When you join a nonprofit board, you will have motivating ideas of how you can support the organization and even what you might gain by doing so. You may rightfully anticipate the connections you can make to further your ability to put your passions to work with a team of like-minded individuals. Board service can expand your business and community networks, as you learn from others with a variety of experiences that have shaped their attitudes and paths. You may see board participation as a chance to stretch your leadership style in ways that everyday life and work experiences don’t readily offer. You may be hoping for a place to leave legacy footprints, making a purposeful difference where it matters most to you. The right board match can help you achieve these goals.
On some corporate boards members can be compensated for their participation. “Compensation” looks very different and special for nonprofit board members. As a nonprofit board member you are expected to make a financial contribution, beg your friends to donate as well, spend hours (mostly evenings) in meetings, buy tickets and tables to events, and operate often without an exit strategy of when to step away from this “privilege.” If you are not deterred, then thank you! Nonprofit board service can be the most intense, important and satisfying volunteer commitment you can undertake. And quite honestly, there are many, many benefits you should enjoy as a result.
Don’t shy away from the win-win of board service. If you are going to spend that much time, energy and philanthropic dollars, you better get something in return. It can be a warm feeling in your heart, a warm lead to a new customer, or the satisfaction that you actually took action to solve a thorny problem. Go for it.
Now as for how to join a board, please keep in mind that there are a variety of nonprofits just as there are a variety of for-profit businesses. How you proceed to join a “Fortune 500” nonprofit board will be different than the path to joining one that is a startup. The bigger the budget of an organization, the broader its geographic reach, the more “prestigious” the current board, the more likely it is that you will need to be willing to write a big personal check or deliver a sizable donation from your company on a regular basis. You may already be a significant donor. You may already have a large reputation for direct involvement in the organization’s mission or in a related area. The closer to a Fortune 500 type nonprofit, the more likely it is that you will be head-hunted for the board because nonprofits of this size and scope understand that many others are fishing in the same pond for potential additions. They have determined that it is worth the investment to professionally search for key thought leaders and those who could add cache in some way. If you want to be considered for one of these boards, you likely already know how to go about it.
The path to joining any nonprofit board, but certainly one of a small to mid-sized or startup organization, must start with passion. Ask yourself, “What do I care about; what keeps me up at night?” and then look for organizations working on solutions. If your passion is solving a problem that is halfway around the world, you are honestly less likely to find a board opportunity in your backyard, but you can certainly find ways to donate money or volunteer your time. For example, Google “solving water pollution.” You will find organizations that tell you how to donate, volunteer and advocate to this end. This may never lead to a board position, but you might find your engagement to be equally satisfying.
The closer your interests are to local problem solving, the better the chances of eventual board service. You want to get to know an organization from the inside as early as possible to confirm that this is a place where you want to invest your time and resources more deeply. Maybe you already have your eye on a local nonprofit. Explore their website and see who is on the board and who is in leadership on staff. You may already have connections so that you can learn more about how the board operates and what the expectations of a member. In the meantime, note any volunteer opportunities posted on the website or reach out to see if there are ways that your skills (marketing, HR, accounting, legal, etc.) could be utilized on a committee or special project. See if there is an event where you could participate in its planning or execution. Ask if there is a need for advocates to speak out or write on behalf of the organization. All these activities will give you a chance to get to know the organization and, equally important, give the board and staff a chance to know you and what you can bring to the table.
If you have the interest but don’t have connections or don’t know where to begin, don’t despair. Read local media with an eye to organizational leadership commenting on issues you care about. Use LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to see which organizations and people are engaged. See if there is a volunteer connector organization or local affiliate of Points of Light in your area and explore volunteer opportunities. Ask local thought leaders in government, civic organizations, business networking groups, and faith-based institutions for names of nonprofits doing good work and introductions to learn more.
After spending thoughtful time, if you are still interested in joining the organization’s board, let it be known. Usually a conversation with the Executive Director, Board Chair, Governance Committee Chair or a key program officer will get the ball rolling, but it doesn’t guarantee an instant or eventual place at the table. The best boards aren’t just looking for warm bodies with deep pockets, to be crass. The best ones are looking for new additions who are passionate about the mission; can fill particular skills and knowledge gaps around the table; bring diversity of opinions, backgrounds and experiences; understand what their role will be; recognize they will be expected to make financial contributions and introductions to others; anticipate that there will be personal and professional fulfillment; and are ready to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.
Not every date leads to a permanent lasting relationship, but good things will always come from getting to know key nonprofits and the boards that lead them. Enjoy the search for a great board to join. It’s out there, and the benefits are going to be as personally rewarding for you as they will be to the nonprofit.
Alisa H. Kesten is executive director of Volunteer New York!, the expert resource for local volunteerism for 70 years. Kesten has extensive nonprofit board leadership experience, serves on the Leadership Council for the Support Center For Nonprofit Management, and is immediate past Vice President of Nonprofit Westchester. Volunteer New York!, an affiliate of Points of Light, develops nonprofit board boot camps and speed dating events to prepare individuals for board service and provide strategic connections to local nonprofits.