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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

What You Should Know Before You Join a Nonprofit Board

Whether you work in the corporate or nonprofit sphere, joining a nonprofit board of directors can be a great boost to your career. It’s a wonderful way to build your leadership skills and give back to the community.

But it can also be a lot of work.

No matter what kind of nonprofit it is, the board of directors is expected to safeguard the mission, ensure the organization’s legal and financial health, and lead fundraising efforts. (Here’s a more thorough breakdown of board responsibilities.)

Although select members of the board may take on more of a leadership role in particular areas of the nonprofit’s activities, all members should be prepared to provide general oversight and feedback. You should expect to meet in person at least quarterly and participate in calls or email conversations with smaller committees in between.

To find a position, you can browse individual organizations’ websites or turn to sites like Idealist, Bridgespan, or your local nonprofit association. Most require you to send in a cover letter, resume, application, or some combination of the three. If the board thinks you are a good fit, you will meet with current members to discuss the opportunity before you are asked to join and voted in.

So, those are the basics. But how do you know if a specific board position at a specific organization is right for you? You’ll have to do the following three things:

1. Know the Mission (and How it Is Fulfilled)

I hope this goes without saying, but don’t join a board of directors if you aren’t passionate about the organization’s mission. You won’t have a good experience, and the organization won’t get the commitment it really needs to succeed.

But also don’t just assume that every mission is the same. For example, perhaps you care deeply about children’s cancer. But do you want to support an organization that funds research or provides direct care? Are you interested in medical interventions, or are you more focused on caring for the wellbeing of the children? Even if different organizations have the same general cause, they may operate in very different ways.

So, once you’ve found the organization that deals with the issues you’re passionate about, you should continue to investigate its program model and how things work from the perspective of both an insider and an outsider.

After all, you will have to fundraise and promote the organization. You want to represent it well and feel good about investing your time in it.

2. Know the Finances

You don’t have to have a lot of finance experience to join a board, but you should have a serious conversation about the financial state of the organization before you join. Request a copy of the budget, a recent balance sheet, and statement of financial activities. Most organizations also usually have an audit or financial review done every year, and their tax returns are available through Guidestar. Ask about any debts, budget shortfalls, or recent layoffs. None of these things should deter you from taking the position—after all, this may be the nonprofit that needs your leadership the most—but you should be aware of any potential issues from the beginning.

Also, make sure to ask about any “give or get” policy. This pertains to the fundraising that the board members are expected to perform. Most boards don’t expect every board member to give a large amount (although nominal gifts may be strongly encouraged), but suggest that everyone either donate or solicit donations at a certain level. If you are uncomfortable with this amount, you should discuss it immediately.

3. Know the People

Most importantly, as a board member, you are inevitably going to have stressful conversations with and about everyone connected to the organization—staff, clients, donors, and your fellow board members.

Get a sense of who these people are, what their priorities are, and how they tend to work. I suggest that you do as many face-to-face meetings as you can with board and senior staff, and visit the office and strike up conversations with volunteers or clients. You don’t have to like everyone (trust me, it’s sometimes easier when you don’t!), but you do need to work well with them in order to properly lead the organization.

Some of the best—and most challenging—moments of my professional life have happened because of my board service. It has pushed me to take on a real leadership position and make difficult decisions I otherwise wouldn’t have faced. And I’ve met lovely people along the way who have supported me as I continued to build my career. Making a smart decision about joining a board can help you immeasurably and allow you to make a real impact on your community.

Photo of board room courtesy of Shutterstock.