Joining a nonprofit board differs starkly from joining the board of a for-profit organization. What steps should you take to set yourself up for acceptance?
People seek to serve on nonprofit boards for any number of reasons, including a desire to support a cause they are passionate about, to serve their communities, or to expand their professional and social networks.
Serving on a nonprofit board can be a noble and fulfilling endeavor, but it also is a big responsibility that demands significant time and dedication. Anyone considering joining a nonprofit board should be purposeful in thinking through their motivations and evaluating their options. Once they’ve identified the right organization, following a few key steps can help increase one’s chances of being asked to serve.
We’ll discuss the responsibilities associated with board service, tips for pursuing a nomination, and what boards are seeking in prospective directors.
The Responsibilities of Nonprofit Board Service
Nonprofit and for-profit boards have similar fiduciary responsibilities. Both must manage an organization’s assets and decisions prudently in service of the mission, and in compliance with applicable regulations, laws, and bylaws. The similarities, however, generally end there.
Many of the other responsibilities associated with serving on a board differ significantly due to one fundamental distinction: For-profit boards represent shareholders. Nonprofit boards represent the organization, its mission, and the communities it serves.
Nonprofit organizations tend to be highly regulated, so the board must carefully navigate those requirements in making decisions. They also must ensure the organization stays within its budget — but unlike corporate boards, they are not beholden to shareholders to generate annual profits.
Specific nonprofit board duties vary among different industries and organizations, but they share some basics in common. For example, all nonprofit boards:
- Set the organization’s mission and vision
- Ensure the organization’s work aligns with that mission and vision
- Select and oversee the executive director
- Approve major gifts and assist in fundraising
- Provide financial oversight, including reviewing and approving the budget
- Assure the organization remains in compliance with all legal and ethical obligations
If meeting those types of responsibilities appeals to you, you should start by finding a reputable nonprofit that suits your criteria. You want a nonprofit that aligns with your interests, but also one where you could make a meaningful contribution, and where your knowledge and skillsets align with the organization’s needs.
Steps to Joining a Nonprofit Board
There are multiple avenues for how to get on the board of a nonprofit. Some people are asked directly through professional or community connections, while others seek the opportunities themselves.
If you want to know how to get on a nonprofit board of directors, building relationships within the organization is key. There are no guarantees, but taking the following steps will help enhance your chances of finding and securing the right appointment.
- Know your own motivations. Before you commit to board service, you should do an honest self-assessment of the reasons why you want to serve. Are you driven primarily by an altruistic desire to serve? Are you passionate about a specific cause? Do you want to build your resume or gain experience in a particular area? Are you seeking esteem or commendation? Understanding your motivations is critical in evaluating your own level of commitment, and whether you really are prepared to dedicate the time and resources to serving on a nonprofit board.
- Know the causes that are important to you. In understanding your motivations, you should think about the causes that you are most passionate about. Once you identify those causes, you can better target the type of organization you would like to join. As previously mentioned, being on a nonprofit board can be a lot of work. Serving a cause that’s important to you will help you stay motivated through the more challenging times.
- Research and identify an organization. As you evaluate your options, you should look for organizations that would be a good fit given your motivations and interests. You should find a nonprofit that serves a cause that brings out your passion. Go beyond a cursory look at the organization. Do your homework — read through its history, review news articles, press releases, and tax filings. Examine previous board policies and meeting minutes. This will help you gain a better understanding of the organization, how it operates, and how you can contribute.
- Volunteer for the organization. Many nonprofits are constantly looking for helpers, and volunteering is great way to get to know the organization. You can meet the people who work there and those in the communities the organization serves. You can see first-hand how it is managed, and how it executes its mission. Assisting with the organization’s fundraising efforts or volunteering on a committee are especially helpful because both are among the many duties of a director.
- Attend board meetings. Going to board meetings can give you further insights into the organization and its leadership. You can see other directors in action and learn about the different personalities on the board. You also can learn what types of tools and resources its leaders use to conduct business, and witness board discussions to become informed about current priorities and issues facing the organization.
- Let other board members learn about you. Volunteering and attending board meetings also will help people within the organization get to know you. They can witness your dedication to the cause, and get a sense for the attributes that you might bring to the board. Once they know you, current directors are much more likely to ask you to join the board or to be receptive when you express an interest in serving alongside them.
Understanding the Expectations
Part of getting to know an organization involves getting to know what it is seeking in new board members for nonprofit positions. Make sure you understand what is expected of board members going in and how you can best fit the organization’s needs.
Most directors go through an interview process before they are appointed, so be prepared to clearly articulate why you want to serve and what you have to offer in terms of any specialized skills or knowledge.
Understand what the board wants from you, including the amount of time and work involved, the length of the term, and to what extent you will have to contribute your own money, resources, or connections for fundraising, or attending meetings or other events.
Ultimately, organizations are looking for individuals who can help advance their missions. Depending on the current nonprofit board composition, they may need specific skills or expertise, such as someone with a background in finance, technology, or marketing. Many boards also are seeking individuals with diverse perspectives and backgrounds based on race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, or other factors.
Some attributes of individuals most likely to thrive on a nonprofit board include those who are dedicated and passionate about the organization, knowledgeable about its cause, engaged in board activities, inquisitive and open to continuous learning, and good at working collaboratively with others.
Board members should be strong leaders and thoughtful in their decision-making. After all, board members are the leaders of the organization, and the primary ambassadors of its mission.
About The Author
- At OnBoard, we believe board meetings should be informed, effective, and uncomplicated. That’s why we give boards and leadership teams an elegant solution that simplifies governance. With customers in higher education, nonprofit, health care systems, government, and corporate enterprise business, OnBoard is the leading board management provider.
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