A few years ago, I joined my first board. As a strategist, I looked forward to contributing to the success of a nonprofit.
Like with anything new, I had questions about “how this works” and what I should expect. Most of those surfaced as I served and learned the ropes. Along the way, I asked people I knew whose board experience I could learn from.
Based on their experience and mine, I decided to share a few pointers – especially for people looking to give back to their community and beyond. It’s not an exhaustive list, but good food for thought. I’d love to hear yours, too, in the comments.
Dos and Don’ts of joining a board
If you’re considering joining a board, it’s good to go in with eyes wide open. Because engaging in this kind of work really should come with a clear understanding of commitments and the real needs of the organization from its trustees.
- DO join a board if the organization’s mission is something close to your heart. It helps if you’re knowledgeable in the space it serves, too.
- DO join a board if you have specific skills or a network that can be helpful to its advancement. Are you networked with like-minded people? They might be able to support the org or even be committee or board candidates themselves.
- DO, in most cases, expect to do some fundraising. That means at some point, you’ll need to pound the proverbial pavement with your contacts and others, in hopes of helping your organization reach its revenue* goals. It means asking for money. Lots of folks are very uncomfortable with this, but let me tell you – if you have the right potential donor, they want to be asked. I’m a pastor’s kid, so I grew up hearing calls for offerings. And apparently the “ask” rubbed off on me, so I’m not at all shy about it – especially if I know someone has demonstrated interest in lending financial support before.
- DON’T join a board without a clear idea of what your time commitment will be. If you only have 2 hours per month that you can devote to it, make sure it will fit into your schedule so you can maximize your time and make the best contribution possible. Nothing breeds resentment like demands that exceed your availability or don’t consider your time.
- DON’T join a board that has not clearly outlined and agreed to domains and responsibilities of staff and board members.
What would you add to this list if someone asked you whether they should join a board?
*Don’t be fooled by the word “nonprofit.” Like any for-profit, a nonprofit needs income (revenue) to meet expenses like payroll, program administration, marketing and donor development. Many parallels are clear, too: Donors = customers; program development = product development. At a high level, the needs are basically the same.
Photo credit: UN Ebola Task Force meeting on 19 September 2014 via photopin (license). No derivatives.
3 thoughts on “To board or not to board? That is the question”
Good points (as always) Nydia. I have a few to add that you probably consider so obvious you didn’t need to list them, but they can be found with smaller non-profits:
1) Don’t join a board that can’t show you a short (2-3 page) concise 3-5 year strategic plan, with measurable goals. This is closely related to your last point: if they don’t know where they’re going your enthusiasm and hard work could be wasted. You can consider waiving this rule if your request for the plan is met with an enthusiastic “we need a plan, and we’re hoping you can help us develop it!”
2) Don’t join a board if the charter doesn’t specify term limits for officers and board members. Fresh ideas are essential.
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Ha ha Steve, I’m afraid most small NGOs would fall right off the “for consideration” list, but I agree some kind of strategic plan would be helpful to review or, if needed, to help create (in fact, I’m being pulled into one of those as I write this). Term limits – so important! Thanks so much for adding; I always appreciate your thoughtful comments! Hope you’re well.
Excellent suggestions…Have copied your tips to share with some of the non-profits i work with. Sadly so very often wonderful potential Board Members with excellent skills to share..leave them at the door on the way into meetings because they really do not fully understand expectations of their service to the group. Thanks so much for these hot points Cheers!e
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