If you’re looking for a way to volunteer with impact, joining a nonprofit organization’s board of directors could be the opportunity you’re seeking. Nonprofit organizations’ bylaws require that they have a body of directors that oversees the organization’s leadership and overall performance of its mission. Being a part of this leadership body can also build important skills that may enhance your career.
“Passion for the mission is a key part of being an effective board member,” says Randee Bloom, RN, MBA, PhD, a nonprofit and human services consultant and Create the Good volunteer ambassador. “But it’s also important to understand the organization and whether it’s a good fit for your time, talent, and treasure.” In other words, look for a good fit for where you wish to devote hours, abilities, and donations, including in-kind donations.
Consider these seven steps when you’re evaluating potential board positions and learning how to be a good board member once you find the right fit.
The first step in landing the right board position for you is to think about how you want to give back. When joining a board, would you prefer to contribute in your area of expertise or serve in a different way? For example, if you have marketing or financial skills, do you want to work in those areas of the organization or oversee and participate in roles and committees that are new to you? Either way, your experience will have value.
“It’s important to realize that you bring your whole self, including your experience, expertise, and talent to the organization,” Bloom says. “So, your experience can add value, regardless of your role on the board.”
In addition, think about the time and commitment you have to donate to a board position. Some board positions are more demanding than others, so you want to be sure that the role you choose is a comfortable fit for success.
First and foremost, it’s critical to have passion in the organization’s mission, Bloom says. Look for organizations you admire that work in areas that are important to you. One sign it might be a good fit: Would you feel proud and honored to serve as a board member in that nonprofit and tell others of your work and dedication? If the answer is “yes,” add it to your short list. Ask friends for recommendations, too.
Once you have a list of possible organization, get more familiar with the mission of each. Bloom recommends reading up on the organization, including its annual report, website, mission statement, and any recent press coverage.
Once you’ve decided on a nonprofit where you’d like to cultivate a leadership role, it’s still a good idea to start with a smaller commitment, like a committee assignment or volunteering at an event. This will help you get to know the staff and other board members and get a better feel for the organization’s culture and the personalities of its leaders. This kind of first-hand experience can be invaluable in determining whether the nonprofit is a good fit for you.
Each board is different in what it seeks from its members, Bloom says. While some boards expect only participation in leadership, others expect attendance at organization events and even financial contributions. Ask specific questions about the expectations the organization has for board members and the responsibilities you will be expected to fulfill.
“Some board members don’t have a clue about their fiduciary responsibilities or what it means to have a voting position on a board,” Bloom adds. Board members often have a number of legal responsibilities, including acting in the best financial interest of the organization, to ensure the proper governance of the organization and its adherence to its mission. So, be sure you are clear about any potential liability and the availability of training and even insurance, to be sure you are prepared for the role and protected in case of anything unexpected.
Once you’ve taken on a board role, getting off on the right foot starts with the basics: Take advantage of board training that’s offered. Meet the staff and attend meetings regularly. Simple things like attending meetings on time, being prepared, and listening well go a long way toward making you more effective and respected in your role.
Look for where your talent and desire to serve can make the most impact. “Consider how your strengths can contribute directly, for example, if you’re a nurse working in a medical nonprofit or a writer volunteering for an organization that needs editorial direction for its newsletter,” Bloom suggests. And when you make a commitment, see it through.
Once you’re familiar with the organization and its goals, look for opportunities to help it fulfill its mission. Your own leadership experience may provide you perspective or informed insight that can be used to promote the organization or make useful introductions to contacts, Bloom says. Check in regularly with senior staff and ensure that the executive director and other leaders feel like they have open lines of communication with the board to address challenges or opportunities.
Most of us have a vision for what we want to accomplish in the world. Think of your board service in terms of the long-term impact you’d like to make. “When your board service aligns with your values and the long-term legacy you want to leave, that’s a powerful self-motivator,” Bloom says.