Wednesday, January 8, 2014

So You Want to Join a Nonprofit Board?

Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the holiday season.  As I talked with girlfriends about their New Year's resolutions, many of them mentioned wanting to give back to their community, and I suggested these women join nonprofit boards.  The process of joining a nonprofit board can be very confusing, so I seek to clarify that here.  You are never too young to join a nonprofit board.  At this moment, you have valuable skills that many nonprofits desperately need.

So what is a nonprofit board?  

The board of directors of a nonprofit is basically the governing body of a nonprofit organization.  They provide the strategic oversight to ensure the long-term fulfillment of the organization's mission.  Unlike corporate boards, board members of a nonprofit are usually not compensated financially.  In fact, most often, nonprofit board members are expected to donate a certain amount annually, in the idea of "write" or "raise."  For example, an organization may ask you to personally "write" an annual donation, or "raise" that amount through your personal and professional networks.

The board members are ultimately financially and legally responsible for the organization.  In most organizations, they work with paid staff members to guide the organization through growth and transition.  But don't worry, nonprofits have Directors & Officers insurance (D&O) to protect individual members from financial or legal harm.  So when joining a board, ask about their D &O. 

As a board member, you are expected to support the organization in a number of ways.  You will be asked to attend regular board meetings, often on a quarterly basis.  You may join a specific board committee to contribute your skill set with the organization.  You may be asked to attend program events to support the organization, and possibly host events to recruit your network to get involved with the organization.  As mentioned above, fundraising is one of the most important requirements of a board member.  But don't be afraid, there are many different ways to raise money, and this is an invaluable professional skill transferable to all trades.

Why should I join a board?

The number one reason to join a nonprofit board is because you care about the cause the organization serves.  You want to give back.  Did you love running clubs in school?  Did you love volunteering and getting involved with your community?  Then your next step is to join a nonprofit board.

In addition to helping others, serving on a nonprofit board has tremendous professional benefits.  Look at the biographies for people you admire.  I bet you they probably have board service included in their bio.  Boards can also allow you to develop skills you may not be able to get in your day job.  You can explore new passions, expand your network, and gain transferable leadership experience.  As you progress in your career, I'm sure you will want to join the board of large, prestigious organizations.  To get there, you need to start now.

How do I join a board? 

As with many things in life, networking is key to joining a nonprofit board. I was 24 when I first joined a nonprofit board.  The year before I officially joined the board, I ran for a seat on the board of the Women's Information Network and lost the election.  I stayed involved with the organization, took on volunteer leadership roles, and won my election the next year.  Since that experience, I have served on many other boards, and I am proud to currently serve on the board of Running Start, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young women to run for office.

For all of my board opportunities, I was previously involved with the organization.  I joined one organization as a volunteer grant writer, and three years later joined the board.   With another organization, I invited someone from the organization to be a guest speaker where I worked, and then they invited me to be a guest speaker for their organization.  Many organizations working with youth or young professionals are very willing to have younger people serve on their boards.  However, even larger organizations are seeking to recruit diverse talent, and are eager for young professionals to serve on their board.

So for some organizations, you need to run for a position, but for others, you need to be recommended by a current board member.  It helps to have donation history with the organization.  When you are a board candidate, they will check if you have been giving to the organization for some time.  So even if it's $20 annually or monthly, start donating now.

What organizations are you currently connected to?  What can be a next step for you to get more involved?  What organizations are you not currently connected to but would like to learn more about?  Sign up for their newsletter or attend one of their events.  Talk to your friends and colleagues who serve on boards for their advice.  Check out Board Net USA, which lists current board vacancies. 

You are qualified now to serve on a board.  Young people are very underrepresented on nonprofit boards, but we have so many skills and experiences to share.  As you start the New Year, make time for volunteering and giving back to your community!  

Additional resources to check out:


Volunteer Match

National Council of Nonprofits


The Bridgespan Group

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