Do you want to join a nonprofit board? Unsure about where to start? Preparing for your journey to become a nonprofit board member is an exciting experience, but we understand that it can also be a confusing process without some guidance. That’s why we have developed this mini series on how to find and join a nonprofit board, what to consider, and how to prepare. So if you feel overwhelmed, rest assured and keep reading, by the end of this series you will breathe easier with some information that is sure to help you find the right organization to champion.
Serving as a board member can be one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences you can have. Volunteering as a board member offers you a chance to make a positive change in the community, putting you on the front lines to see impact in action. But, becoming a board member can give you much more than just positive karma, it also provides opportunities to meet new people and expand your personal and professional network. The experience can also help you meet your educational goals; many nonprofit boards participate in workshops and attend conferences aimed at improving the individual and the board. However, serving as a board member is not always a walk in the park. You are accountable for the organization’s success and failure so you must take on your leadership role understanding that there will be both opportunities and challenges ahead.
Before joining a board, it is best to consider your “fit,” to help determine the type of nonprofit board you should look for and/or if you mesh well with a board you’re already considering.
Finding Your “Fit”
In order to fit the right opportunity, you should first take some time to explore your motivations, skills, and personal style. Consider what you would like to gain (personally, socially, etc.) and what you would like to give. Consider your special skills and how you want to use them. While evaluating the skills you could provide to a board, make sure you are honest with yourself. When the time comes for an interview, you will want to be fully confident in the skill set you can offer the board to avoid misunderstandings in the future. To help guide the process, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I hope to gain from being a board member?
- What change would I like to affect through a leadership role?
- Do I have any specific professional knowledge to leverage, such as marketing experience, financial knowledge, or human resources expertise?
- Do I have prior fundraising success that could benefit an organization?
- Am I a strong networker? Do I have a large, trustworthy network that I feel comfortable tapping into? Do I develop personal and professional relationships easily?
- Am I a team player or do I like to work alone? How well do I collaborate?
- What leadership experience do I bring? Do I possess strong leadership skills? What type of leader am I?
- Am I a detail-oriented person? Or a big picture thinker? Do I prefer to make decisions based on analytics or gut feeling? Do I set goals for myself regularly? How do I act on those goals and evaluate my progress?
- In terms of personal style, think about the organizational cultures that are most appealing. Am I interested in a nonprofit that operates bureaucratically? Or would I rather be a part of a freethinking, organic culture?
One of the most crucial steps to take before joining a board is identifying mission areas that are personally important to you. Your success as a board member will rely heavily on how passionate and committed you are to an organization’s mission; if it doesn’t carry any personal connection you will find yourself unmotivated to fully engage in the board’s work. Another important factor is location and reach; are you willing to travel further to be a part of a board with greater geographical and mission reach? Or would you rather join a board that is community based and close to home? Taking some time to determine your passions will help guide your search as you look for nonprofits that match your interests.
More often than not, organizations and boards fall short of their goals when expectations differ or are unclear among the individuals involved. As a result, possibly the most important consideration is whether your expectations of the organizations match the expectations of the board members. If you have not yet come in contact with the organization, conducting some initial research (check the organization’s website) will at least provide you with a general understanding of how they operate along with their mission, vision, and values. To better understand what you expect of a board and organization, and determine what you are willing to contribute to meet an organization’s expectations, ask yourself these questions as a starting point:
- How much time do I expect executive leadership dedicate towards the board?
- What types of communication and how frequently do I want communicate with the organization?
- How would I like my ideas, opinions, feedback and recommendations to be received by the staff leadership – or what is my comfort level with a staff driven organization versus and board driven organization?
- What kind of fundraising infrastructure and resources would I like the organization to have to support my development efforts?
- Is it important to me to conduct meetings in a plush boardroom with all the amenities, or am I comfortable in a scrappy, grassroots environment?
- What kind of relationships do I want to build with my fellow board members?
- How much time am I willing to dedicate to the board and organization?
- What financial contribution is appropriate for me?
- Do I feel comfortable leveraging my networks when appropriate to help the organization?
- What skills and experience am I willing to bring to bear?
Resources to Start Your Search
Before you start your search, consider what you know about nonprofit boards. Even if you have experience in the nonprofit world, it may be beneficial to brush up on some general knowledge. This process does not need to be drawn out, but you want to be sure that your knowledge base is sufficient enough to help make the right decisions when the time comes. The following sites provide a wealth of information about nonprofit boards:
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy – newspaper of the nonprofit world
- Independent Sector – coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporations committed to advancing “a just and inclusive society and a healthy democracy of active citizens, effective institutions, and vibrant communities.” Offers information about organizations and provides over 700 links to member organization websites.
- BoardSource – offers good advice about governance standards. BoardSource offers a number of resources to become an effective nonprofit board member and board as a whole. For general information about nonprofit governance, see: Nonprofit Governance Index 2010 and Board Essentials – answers to questions about serving on boards. You should also become familiar with the financial implications (obtaining and maintaining tax-exempt status) of the nonprofit world, to start check out these white papers: Governance in Form 990 and The Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Implications for Nonprofit Organizations.
The easiest way to start your search for board positions is to simply do some web research. Don’t forget to answer some of the previously mentioned questions about your fit before you start your search. Many nonprofits post open board positions on their website, but if you do not have a list of organizations in mind start with some of the popular recruitment/search sites.
While these websites offer a number of beneficial services to kick off your search, your most valuable resource is your own network. You never know who can help unless you ask, so share your interest to join a nonprofit board with family, friends, your company/business contacts, religious congregation, professional associations, etc. Utilize social and professional networking websites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Idealist, and Twitter to expand your network and establish connections to individuals at the organizations you’re interested in. Once you’ve developed a list of organizations that you are interested in, contact the organizations and ask about their recruiting process. If the organizations are openly recruiting, ask to meet with them (or ask where you can find informational material) to discuss individual and board responsibilities. After an initial discussion and/or research, step back and refer to your list of interests, mission areas, and what you want out of a nonprofit board (consider your overall fit). If the shoe fits, then go for it!