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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Career-Boosting Relationship Every Nonprofit Employee Should Have

A nonprofit’s board of directors is responsible for the welfare of the organization, and most of the members probably got involved because they care about the nonprofit’s mission and the work its employees (read: you) do every day. But unless you’re the executive director, you may not have any kind of relationship with your board.

That can be a big mistake.

Knowing your board members is about much more than rubbing elbows with the head honchos. They need to be aware of what’s going on in the organization day-to-day, and you can gain key insight into the organization’s goals and vision (and how you may fit into it).

Now, you do need to be realistic about your interactions with the board. As an intern, for example, you shouldn’t expect to have weekly lunches with the board chair. However, there are a few key ways you can—and should—be building relationships with board members.

1. Attend Board Meetings

The most obvious place to talk to a board member is (surprise!) at a board meeting. Nonprofit board meetings are supposed to be public, and staff should be allowed to join (except for the executive session, when the board discusses salaries and other confidential matters). If your organization doesn’t typically have open meetings, ask your supervisor if you can sit in on a meeting, explaining that you’d like to learn more about the board.

In my first nonprofit job, I was responsible for taking minutes at board meetings. I learned a lot about the organization, the different members, and how to take minutes (pro tip: you don’t need to record every word).

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t ask questions during the meeting, but you should feel free to discuss any questions with members during the break or afterward as you make small talk. Not only will this enforce a positive impression of you, but you’ll also serve as a good reminder of the daily impact that the board’s decisions make on the staff.

2. Provide Updates

Copying the board on an email that includes positive feedback that you got from a client or reports on a recent goal that you met can remind board members of the real-world implications of their work. It will also put you in a good light by showcasing your stellar performance.

I realized at a recent job that the board was clueless about the true scope of our organization’s programming. With my boss’ blessing, I put together a brief summary about our progress. Not only was the board impressed by everything we did, but the email also armed them with talking points for when they approached funders and other VIPs.

There’s no magic number as to the number of updates you send, so I suggest that you only do so when there’s big news to report. An unscheduled—but important—email will boost the chances of it being read and taken seriously. Just make sure to get your boss’ approval before you send that email!

3. Talk to Them at Events

I went to an event a few years ago for an organization of which I was chair of the board. I introduced myself to the two staff members, they stared at me blankly. I checked in with them later in the evening to see if I could buy them a drink or give them a break from their responsibilities—same response.

Needless to say, I was not impressed. I didn’t need to chat and giggle with them, but they didn’t appear to understand my role at the organization or the role of the other board members, who they roundly ignored. Between all the board members there, we had contacts at every organization in our field in the country. Later, when the staff members tried to move up in their careers, we were consulted for references and couldn’t offer their prospective employers a single positive recommendation.

Alternatively, a little chitchat would have helped their chances immensely, and a few thoughtful questions about the role of the board or our vision for the future could have made me their champion.

The board of directors represents a wealth of expertise, contacts, and passion. If you can create a solid relationship with them, you’ll find that it can help you throughout your career.

Photo of woman talking courtesy of Shutterstock.