How to Get a Seat on a Nonprofit Board
Serving as a board member can enrich your life and make a difference in the lives of others. Here’s how to get started.
I’m a longstanding member of two boards: one at my high school, Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, and the other at Duke University, where I’m an alum.
My basic board duties involve a handful of meetings a year (travel expenses are reimbursed, but lodging is on my nickel, so I often stay with friends) and monthly exchanges via phone and email.
The board work provides just the right amount of mental stimulation to make me feel involved and relevant; it lets me make friends and broaden my network.
But perhaps the biggest reward has been my pride in giving back to the schools that had such an influence on me. I’ve enjoyed, for example, helping improve the schools’ editorial products, boost readership for Duke’s alumni magazine and widen opportunities for my high school’s alumni to mentor its current students, particularly girls.
My service period for both boards is sadly winding down to a close in the next year, however. So I’m beginning a search to join one or two other nonprofit boards, and have already picked up enough tips to help you do the same.
Why Women Over 50 Should Join Nonprofit Boards
Serving on the board of a nonprofit is a wonderful, enriching experience, especially for women who are in their 50s (like me) or older. Aside from the joy of working for the public good, it can broaden your resumé and skills, which might help you find your next job, especially if you want to transition from the corporate world into the nonprofit field.
In exchange for all this, you’ll need to commit some time and probably money. Depending on the nonprofit, you may have to attend meetings more or less monthly, raise money, help plan and run events and improve the group’s programming. Unlike corporate boards, a nonprofit typically won’t pay you for your efforts. Most likely you'll be expected to donate a tax-deductible check to the nonprofit periodically.
My Journey to Find New Boards to Serve On
I’ve begun my quest to join another nonprofit board or two by casually canvassing a few people I know who’ve recently taken on similar duties.
Several had landed their positions via word-of-mouth networking. Others used the website BoardnetUSA.org, where you note the type of group you’d like to assist (arts, environment, health, etc.) and any preferred location; then BoardnetUSA sends a weekly e-mail with organizations looking for prospective board members who fit your profile. Volunteermatch.org and Idealist.org are two other excellent sites to search for board openings. At Volunteermatch, simply type in "board member" as your keywords; at Idealist, select "volunteer opportunities" then type in "board member."
My friends’ warts-and-all reports on their experiences serving on nonprofit boards were a little daunting. Among the comments I heard:
- “Your passion for the mission should be what brings you to the organization. Otherwise, your patience may wear thin.”
- “I had no idea how dysfunctional small nonprofits can be and how much of the board work involves putting up with the nuttiness of their founders.”
- “They want your expertise, but don’t expect anything to change quickly. As a corporate manager in my day job, it made me batty at first, because decisions at nonprofits tend to be made by consensus and groupthink. What I say is taken into consideration, but it doesn’t press the gas pedal to action. It often takes far longer to get everyone on the same page.”
Refusing to be discouraged but glad to be enlightened, I then sought expert advice about finding and joining a board from Laura Gassner Otting, president of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a national executive search firm based in Boston. Her outfit has helped place CEOs, vice presidents of development and project managers at nonprofits ranging from Boston College to the National Urban League to Special Olympics International.
Here are her five tips:
1. Determine which causes are meaningful to you and be ready to provide proof of your passion when you're interviewed for a board position. “Can you sincerely show that you have a passionate interest in a certain nonprofit’s mission and care genuinely about the challenges and pressing issues on its agenda?” Gassner Otting asks.
If so, you’re on the right track. But you are not a shoe-in. You’ll be interviewed and vetted by the board, so you’ll need to prepare for what is essentially a job interview. “Your passion and commitment for the organization and cause is what will set you apart from other candidates,” she counsels.
2. Zero in on what you have to offer. Boards are often looking for people who can help them in specific areas, like fundraising, PR and marketing, event planning and finances. If you have any of those skills, play them up.
Moreover, “your time, energy, intelligence and financial resources — or connections — are worth something,” Gassner Otting says.
3. Think strategically about what being on the nonprofit’s board can do for you. “Use the board to build your knowledge of a particular mission area and a specific skill set, but also as a platform to show your expertise and competence to influential people in the nonprofit and for-profit world,” Gassner Otting says.
If you plan to leverage your position to land a job in the nonprofit sector or an entrepreneurial venture with social purpose, consider the connections you can make through the board you're aiming to join.
One way to do this is to ask the board’s leader to tell you about its other members. As Gassner Otting notes, “Most people who sit on nonprofit boards are also sitting on others or have sat on others in the past.” Consequently, they know people in lots of other organizations and may be able to steer you to dozens of nonprofit decision makers.
4. See if you’re impressed by the way the board has run the nonprofit. Ask for written board policies, bylaws and previous minutes. Then invite current and former board members for coffee, to find out what their experience has been like, Gassner Otting advises.
You should also check out the organization’s latest online tax filing (Form 990) to see how much its key employees and executives earn. This will give you a sense of where the money goes and whether the pay is out of sync with the group’s operating budget.
5. Understand why the board wants you — and what it wants out of you. Is it for your skills? Your access to potential donors? Your own giving power?
To learn what’s specifically expected of you, nail down answers to the following questions:
- How much time will I be asked to give?
- When does the board work get done?
- Are the meetings on weekends, weeknights or weekdays?
- How long will I need to serve?
- How big a donation will I have to make to the group, and how often?
- Will I have to use my connections to raise funds?
Local Boards vs. National Boards
One more question to ask yourself is whether you’d rather devote your energy to a local nonprofit or a national one.
A local board may give you a better chance to be involved at the ground level, but it can be a time bandit if you’re not careful. Serving on a national board can be a little headier; its members may be key players in their respective industries, and the organization is more likely to have a high-profile, high-impact mission.
My Action Plan
As for me, I’ve launched an action plan to find a new board or two that will give me the same sense of pleasure I’ve found on the boards at Duke and Shady Side Academy.
I’m currently investigating groups with three broad missions: financial literacy for teenagers, career mentoring for women and girls, and animal welfare (specifically horses and dogs). Alzheimer’s is another area I might consider.
I know that once I find the right boards, I’ll be galvanized by fresh sets of challenges and inspired by the people I’ll work alongside.
Whichever boards I wind up on, I hope to help bring increased awareness to their causes and make a difference in others’ lives, even four-legged ones.