Serving a nonprofit organization through board service can be a rewarding and valuable experience. Nonprofit board members help steer an organization’s future in everything from its financial well-being to legal governance, ethics, and even its reputation. The decisions made by nonprofit board members could have significant implications for those it serves.
Studies show that there are deep, positive impacts for individuals who serve a board. According to the 2018 Better World Leadership Nonprofit Leadership Study, a majority of nonprofit board members felt more confident (68%), thought they had become better leaders (69%), and found more meaning in their work (64%). Research shows that these benefits and others multiply the longer you serve. In addition to supporting a cause you care about, board service can help an individual grow both personally and professionally.
There are 1.3 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. that provide food, shelter, education, health resources, and much more. These organizations are all led by boards. There are nonprofit organizations that touch nearly every special interest, group of people, or aspect of life. If you are eager to give and serve on a nonprofit board, how do you know where to start?
Below are a few tips and best practices to help direct potential board members to a nonprofit board they will find fulfilling and worthy of their time.
Nonprofit boards are a time commitment, so it is important to select an organization or mission in which you have an interest. Nonprofits seek board members who have specific skills to help round out their needs, those who have a network of their own and are willing to make connections that would benefit the organization, and those who will serve as advocates for the organization. Before you look for a board to serve, first look inward. What are you passionate about? What cause, idea, or mission do you want to dedicate your time and service toward?
To find the right fit, you must know what you care most about; otherwise, serving on a nonprofit board could feel tedious instead of a vehicle to help fulfill a passion and help others. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor to nonprofits and philanthropy, suggested asking yourself the following questions:
According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “America’s 1.3 million charitable nonprofits feed, heal, shelter, educate, inspire, enlighten, and nurture people of every age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status, from coast to coast, border to border, and beyond. They foster civic engagement and leadership, drive economic growth, and strengthen the fabric of our communities. Every single day. Every person in the United States benefits from the work of nonprofits in one way or another, whether they realize it or not.” When considering which organization to apply to, think about those that have either directly or indirectly had an impact on you or those you care about.
Many nonprofit organizations benefit you each day. For example, the nonprofit arm of your public library may have a mission to promote literacy and fundraise for more resources or children’s programs you get to use. Nonprofit organizations run theaters and arts organizations, help provide scholarships to schools and camps, and run and organize other community resources. If you look around your community, you have likely have been directly impacted. These causes are worthy of consideration for nonprofit board service.
Another option is to explore opportunities at nonprofits that have benefited or helped someone close to you. For example, if you have a family member or friend who has been diagnosed with an illness, benefitted from grants or scholarships, or used a food bank or shelter. Consider seeking out one of these nonprofit organizations to see if they need board members and if you have attributes that could help the organization thrive.
If it’s your first time serving on a board—or even if it’s not—make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into legally, ethically, and practically. Nonprofits have created a board to help shape the organization, and their boards help lay the foundation for success.
Before you dive in, make sure you understand the legal responsibilities of a board. Legally speaking, the board of a nonprofit organization assumes the fiduciary role for the organization’s wellbeing, BourdSource notes. This includes setting compensation for the chief executive, reviewing the organization’s 990, and ensuring the annual audit is conducted and results are understood.
Ethically, board members are expected to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the organization's standards of conduct, and to exercise care when helping make decisions for the organization and its future.
Board members are also expected to be prepared for and attend meetings, serve on task forces if available, advocate for the organization and represent stakeholders, and make a personal financial contribution to the organization, BoardSource states. It may also be helpful to read a book about serving on a board to help understand how boards work, what it entails, the time commitment, the role of staff, serving on committees, group decision-making, and other important topics.
Sounds simple enough—every organization could use the assistance of volunteers, right? You will need to find a nonprofit board with an opening and where you are compatible.
Here is how to get started:
Search job boards for nonprofit and mission-driven organizations. There are sites where nonprofit jobs are listed, like Impact Opportunity or Idealist, which have listings of nonprofits seeking board members.
Look within the industry that you are employed. Many professional fields have nonprofits connected to them, either through industry associations or corporations that donate to as part of their philanthropy. That means you likely have some knowledge of the organization or you already have professional connections with board members.
Network and Interview. Networking is always a good way to learn more about opportunities in the nonprofit sector. In addition to talking to colleagues, friends, and other professionals, conducting informational interviews may be beneficial. These interviews, which use research and connections, can be a powerful way to explore your interests and to learn what’s out there and can help leaders in the spaces you’re interested in know that you have an interest when they have a board opening that may suit you. There may not be a space for you immediately, but the more people who know you are interested in serving on a nonprofit board, the more people who could recommend you to an organization that needs board members.
Once you find a nonprofit organization with a spot for a new board member, and it serves a cause that you are passionate about, make sure you are a fit for that board, and the board is a fit for you.
Typically, the term on a nonprofit board is a multi-year commitment. It is imperative that you know the expectations the board will have of you and that you can commit that amount of time, energy, and money.
What’s the time investment. It is important to note that much more goes into serving on a nonprofit board than monthly meetings. There are potential fundraising events that you will be expected to attend, travel time to and from meetings or engagements, phone calls, emails, and other activities you may be expected to support. Be sure you can commit the necessary time to serve on the board and be a productive member.
Is there a financial commitment? Once you find an organization and board that is a fit, be sure that you understand any financial commitment. There is not always an expectation of monetary donations while serving on the board, but it’s important to understand what expenses you may be expected to cover.
Are your skills a match? Be sure the skills you have to offer are needed on the nonprofit board. Oftentimes, board members are selected because of their skillset or occupational knowledge to fill a gap among current board members. For example, someone in the financial industry could be of assistance in balancing budgets and preparing for audits. Sometimes roles that match your skill set are already filled on a board, which may mean you may not be the best fit on that nonprofit board.
Be sure to share values. Make sure the board and the organization it supports shares your values. According to Board Effect, which provides board portal management software, nonprofit organizations each have their own “flavor” and “culture.” In addition to the board culture, each board member is unique. Be sure that your beliefs and ethics align.
Giving back to the community by serving on a nonprofit board is a great way to help a worthy cause, network and grow your leadership experience, but don’t overdo it, and don’t do it for the wrong reasons.
It is not unheard of to serve on more than one nonprofit board. In fact, it is common for community-minded people to help multiple organizations. But, if serving on a nonprofit board is a new venture for you, be sure that you can fully serve on one board before joining another. The time commitment for one board can be a lot. Two or more could be too much. Know your limits. Stretching yourself too thin means you can’t fully commit the time and energy that you would if you were serving on just one.
When you find an organization worthy of your time and energy, give what you can. It is unfair to you, your fellow board members, the executive director of the organization, or the beneficiaries of the nonprofit organization’s efforts if you overextend yourself in ways that could ultimately impact you or the organization.
Keep in mind you will know that you have found the right nonprofit board if your service is a benefit for both the organization and you as a board member.
Impact Opportunity would like to thank Gregg Jones and Karen Butterfield of KE Butterfield, LLC., a communications firm, for their work in writing this article.