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What it Takes to be a Stellar Volunteer Board Member: Lessons Learned From The Olive Grove Team

As part of National Volunteer Week, we thought it fitting to reflect on some of our own first experiences volunteering on nonprofit boards. We asked our team to share what led them to joining their first boards, what benefits they received from board service, and some of the lessons they took from their experiences. Here is what we had to say:

Volunteer Board Member

Emily Hall, Olive Grove Founder and CEO


Q: What is the first board you served on? What got you there?

A: Pearl Theatre Company, New York City. The chair and artistic director came to our consulting firm to ask for help with a project. The firm was too big and too expensive for what they needed, but I loved these two people. Since I had a performing arts background and I loved Pearl Theatre Company’s mission, I offered to do the project pro bono. That got me into a great relationship with them that led to serving on and eventually chairing that board. My husband and I even had our rehearsal dinner there for our wedding – a chef friend catered it, and we took everyone to a play there the night before our wedding. They were our family.

Q: What benefit did you receive from serving on a board?

A: It’s hard to be a good consultant to boards until you have served on one. It opens up your perspective, gives you a reality check, and definitely increases awareness and empathy for both the CEO and the board members. Beyond that, I met great people who were aligned with my passions and values. We all put in our best to advance the mission together, working toward something bigger than ourselves – to share this amazing gem with others and leave a legacy for the future. I’m glad to say that the pieces we put into place back then have allowed the organization to flourish and adapt over the years.

Q: What is a lesson you learned from that first board experience?

A: I personally wanted to get engaged in everything; I was so enthusiastic. So first I learned not to over-commit, and to be realistic about what I could do as a volunteer with limited time. I also learned that my passion doesn’t mean everyone else shares it at same level, or has the same capacity to give (time, money, connections, whatever). I also learned to listen and understand the unique motivation and value each individual can bring to the board, and to leverage that to its max.

Kristin Heller, Olive Grove Senior Consulting Director


Q: What is the first board you served on? What got you there?

A:The first board I served on was the YMCA, Richmond District—a branch in San Francisco. I started on the board as a fellow in graduate school as part of the Net Impact Board Fellows Program. This program helps place MBA students on nonprofit boards to help them round out their resumes and get them more involved in community service.

I joined because I really liked the organization; it was something I was part of growing up and I had really fond memories of it. I also liked the fact that this branch was really community based and neighborhood oriented which made me feel like I wasn’t joining an organization, I was joining a family. Being new to the city it was a very nice way to get to know people and I feel like I had a community. I had also worked at and volunteered with a nonprofit but I had never sat on the board side, so this was an opportunity to see the other side of the coin and to experience board service first hand.

Q: What benefit did you receive from serving on a board?

A: I didn’t realize going in how much I was going to be able to use my own unique skill set, and I was really able to do that at the YMCA. I facilitated staff and board retreats, I worked with the Executive Director on strategic planning, I sat on the annual campaign as a committee chair and helped develop a strategy for that. I was really able to use my skill set and background and it felt really nice to not be just another extra set of hands. In addition to that, I found other people that were really inspiring to me—intelligent, successful people who really opened my eyes to other worlds out there.

Q: What is a lesson you learned from that first board experience?

A: In my first year, I was really shy, very nervous and not wanting to create waves. I didn’t ask a lot of questions at board meetings and I didn’t push a lot of conversation. What I later learned is that the role of the board is to ask questions; you really have to put yourself out there and poke holes in things because you’re there to provide a perspective and broaden everyone else’s perspective. You really have to voice opinions because it helps to shape the conversation. I was also able to understand through volunteering at the YMCA how much power individuals have to change their community. If you find something you’re passionate about and you go for it, you can really make an impact.

Jean K. Ries, Olive Grove Senior Consulting Director


Q: What is the first board you served on? What got you there?

A: The first board I served on was for RAWDance – a small dance company in the Bay Area that has been around for ten years. I joined at the end of last year because it was always a professional priority of mine to join a board; however, it never felt right until I started working at Olive Grove and began to get to know the Bay Area arts community. I joined because of my passion and personal identification as a dancer and also because I went to high school and danced with one of the organization’s founders. Lastly, the organization was in what felt like the right place/space where I could both contribute to and learn from board involvement.

Q: What benefit did you receive from serving on a board?

A: I have benefitted immensely from engaging with interesting and talented individuals that I would otherwise not have. Being on a board provides a new perspective of what it takes and means to be a small arts organization in the Bay Area, and I enjoy having the opportunity to share my expertise and perspective through a new avenue.

Q: What is a lesson you learned from that first board experience?

A: I’ve learned that you need to have patience with those who might not have as much nonprofit experience. Board engagement truly does mean different things to different people. The role of the Board Chair can really make or break a successful and driven board. The line between governance and leadership is a challenging one—no matter what size or how complex an organization is.

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Anthony Tansimore, Olive Grove VP Leadership Impact


Q: What is the first board you served on? What got you there?

A: I served on the board of a housing nonprofit started and run by my neighborhood Catholic church. A friend served on the board and she wanted new people who could bring different perspectives and skills, such as finance and management.

Q: What benefit did you receive from serving on a board?

A: It was a tough experience because the board was split between the loyalists, who didn’t want to change anything, and the realists, who were focused on trying to make the organization sustainable. We had tough conversations about the viability of the nonprofit if it kept relying on donations from the church whenever it got into a financial hole. By default I played a broker role, raising difficult questions and helping to navigate often heated conversations toward workable solutions. We made small steps, and along the way some board members decided to leave the board, which opened the way to new people coming on who helped it become effective.

Q: What is a lesson you learned from that first board experience?

A: I learned that passion alone is not enough to sustain an organization. It takes energy, hard work and commitment. Moreover, I learned the importance of governance, stewardship of the organization’s mission, direction and ensuring there are sufficient resources to support delivery on the mission.

As you can tell, we highly value the experiences that we’ve gained through serving on various nonprofit boards. That’s not to say the work isn’t challenging and difficult at times, but the benefits—both personally and to the nonprofit you serve—are invaluable. If you’ve been thinking about serving on a nonprofit board, there’s no time like the present! Get out there and contribute to a cause you feel passionate about; the impact you make in your community will be one of the most rewarding things you do.

Do you have a notable experience serving on a nonprofit board? Share with us at @OG_Consult on Twitter.

Emily Hall

Emily Hall

Emily Hall, Olive Grove’s Founder & CEO, has provided strategic consulting services to thousands of community leaders, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, board members, corporations, governments and philanthropists over two decades. She has enhanced the impact of organizations of every size, sector, stage of development, and mission focus, and helped individuals focusing their giving for maximum impact.