How to Properly Approach Nonprofit Board Service
- by Jane Barnet
Most people see nonprofit board work as a way to give back. And it is. But board service also offers significant benefits to you.
Here are three good reasons to serve on a nonprofit board:
Networking. If you are looking for a new job or career, nonprofit boards offer a tremendous opportunity to make connections with other professionals. Look around the table, and you will find professionals at different career stages who have interesting connections and also share a common interest. Your board colleagues are an important part of the experience.
Build your resume. Along with contributing your professional talents for a good cause, nonprofit board service also offers a way to hone new skills. Cynthia Remec, executive director at BoardAssist, a leading personalized board recruiting resource for the nonprofit community in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, told us: “A board member who’s short on substantive leadership experience, for example, may soon find he’s able to update his resume with a description of the committee he ran, along with a detailed account of its objectives, goals and achievements. Board members are often challenged in ways that are wholly different from the demands of their day jobs, allowing them to grow professionally.”
Fulfillment. Serving on a nonprofit board is a much deeper and time-consuming commitment than making a gift to a worthy institution. Board membership involves service. It ought to deliver rewards beyond career success. As Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
And here are three key considerations to think about before joining:
Expect to give. If you would not make a financial gift to the organization, do not join the board. Board members you speak with should be forthright about board giving. Nanette Fridman, author of On Board: What Current & Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits and Board Service, said, “The organization already should be or should become one of your top three philanthropic priorities. You can’t ask others to support an organization that you do not.” If the organization doesn’t bring up giving, you should. Is there an expected minimum? Is there a give or get? Is there a scale? Your expectations and theirs should match.
Do your homework. Choose to serve on the board of an organization whose mission resonates with you. But that’s just the beginning. Try to sit in on a board meeting before you agree to join. Board service includes fiduciary responsibility. Look at the annual report and audited financials. Find out if there is board insurance. You also want to know a little about staffing levels and volunteer versus professional expectations. Ask for the board roles and responsibilities in writing—giving included. You are a volunteer, your time is valuable, so it’s smart to exercise due diligence.
Have realistic expectations. You need to learn that you have wisdom, but not all the answers. Miriam May WG84 went from a job as vice president at Citigroup to a position at a regional United Way organization.
“It was a rude awakening. I should have served on a nonprofit board first. I quickly discovered that nonprofits have a complex set of stakeholders. Clients, collegial competitors, donors, the board, committees, volunteers, community members and national umbrellas can all complicate a nonprofit’s ability to execute its mission effectively. Additionally, there is much to accomplish with far fewer resources,” said May, who has gone on to serve on a variety of nonprofit boards, found nonprofits, and serve as a consultant to nonprofits and banks.
More than ever, boards need strong, strategic contributors. In “Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices,” a survey by BoardSource of board chairs and CEOs, current boards only earned a B- from board chairs and CEOs.
Come on, Wharton alumni, we can help them do better!