Non-Profit Board Membership: The Advantages and Realities

Non-Profit Board Membership: The Advantages and Realities

shutterstock_337000853 (board)

Serving on a non-profit board can be an experience beyond compare and offer a chance to develop leadership skills, make a meaningful contribution to something larger than yourself and cultivate new personal and professional connections. That said, before you seek out or join a board, it is critical to understand the advantages and realities of board membership.

A number of my clients are interested in non-profit board membership, including those who wish to “start the year out right” and add a new board membership in the first quarter of next year. In this post, I have compiled a list of articles and resources to help my clients and readers understand some important points about non-profit boards, specifically:

  • what makes you an attractive candidate for non-profit board membership or leadership,

  • how your board résumé should differ from a straight employment résumé (hint: highlight volunteer work, former board memberships (if any) and transferrable skills the organization needs),

  • how being on a non-profit board can help ease the transition into a leadership role at a non-profit organization (from the corporate world) or a for-profit board, if either of these is a goal, and

  • the advantages and realities of board membership.

The key point to make is that non-profit organizations are often run very differently than private companies, and joining a non-profit board for which you are not passionately aligned with the cause generally results in a negative experience – on both ends (for the board member and the non-profit organization). A second point is that not all non-profits and, by extension, their boards are alike. If you are already very familiar with the non-profit world this is obvious, but if you are approaching non-profits without much direct experience, be ready to objectively evaluate the board, separate from your commitment to its mission, including:

  • expectations of members (including financial support or fundraising),
  • board members’  sophistication,
  • how the Executive Director and major donors interact with the board,
  • how effectively the organization utilizes the time and talents of board members,
  • any inter-board rivalry, departure from mission or disagreements,
  • dates and times of meetings, committees and other obligations, and
  • “scalability” of the organization, if appropriate,
  • major funding sources and how certain are they to remain so (and if the non-profit has identified alternatives),
  • financials, corporate governance and compliance (start with the Form 990 and ask more questions from there), and
  • who its competitors and potential/current collaborators may be, who is providing similar services (more generally), how cognizant the board is about these points and how they affect service to beneficiaries of the organization’s mission.

If you are considering joining a non-profit board, the best thing you can do is to educate yourself about the organization, what it means to be a board member and who will be joining you on the journey (including the Executive Director, senior staff, donors and fellow board members).

Here are some additional articles and resources with a range of topics and viewpoints on non-profit board candidacy and membership:

Nonprofit Boards: How to Find a Rewarding Board Position (Bridgespan)

Find and Join a Nonprofit Board (Bridgespan)

How to Get a Seat on a Nonprofit Board (Forbes)

Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It) (Blue Avocado)

Ten Biggest Mistakes Boards and Executives Make (Blue Avocado)

Community Resources: Joining a Nonprofit Board and Other Resources (BoardSource)

Board service (Idealist)

Before you join that board… (Wall Street Journal)

How to Be a Better Nonprofit Board Member (Stanford Business)

Nonprofit Board Basics Online (CompassPoint)

Board Roles and Responsibilities (National Council of Nonprofits)

General nonprofit information and updates (Guidestar)

Want a seat on a board? Rewrite your resume (Fortune) (note: addresses for-profit board positions, but many of the ideas are applicable to non-profit boards as well)

Note: In addition to the above, if you are a professional with specific expertise that is useful to a board, such as an attorney, accountant or CFO, consider how much the Executive Director and other board members will ask for direct legal or financial advice versus consulting outside advisors (and whether you are comfortable giving it – ethically, liability-focused and otherwise – as a board member) as opposed to simply relying on your general expertise and management of those advisors. Smaller boards often like to have a “legal person” and a “finance person” on their board in order to leverage such experience and ferret out red flags, which is very helpful. Sometimes, however, this crosses over into you being asked to provide legal advice or expected to “pass on” numbers, which should be outside of the scope of your fiduciary duties.

If you are actively pursuing a board position, it pays to be open to more than one organization and consider the tradeoffs of each, as well as what you would bring to the table. In addition, remember that seeking out a board is similar in some ways to a job search, referrals and endorsements go a long way, as well as personal connections. The ball may be in your court to make the contacts – and to follow up – even if the board has expressed an interest in having you join. In addition, don’t forget to let your LinkedIn network know that you are interested in a board position and your relevant experience (by including it on your profile), as non-savvy profits may also source board members on LinkedIn.

The above resources will get you started and on your way to discovering the inner workings of board selection and membership, including advantages and pitfalls to avoid. As a final point, which cannot be emphasized enough, only join a non-profit board if you are devoted enough to its cause that you can tough it out through the minor (or major) aggravations that may arise over time. That said, board membership is an important and very needed form of skilled volunteership in our society, so if you have the skills and willingness to move forward, by all means, seek out a board!

Anne Marie Segal is a career and leadership coach and résumé writer to attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs. You can find her website at www.segalcoaching.com.

WRITING SERVICES include attorney and executive résumés, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, bios, websites and other career and business communications.

COACHING SERVICES include career coaching, networking support, interview preparation, LinkedIn training, personal branding, leadership and change management.

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