Joining a nonprofit board allows you to lend a hand for a good cause, build your professional network, develop your skills, and even advance your career. But what is the best way to get on a board — and how should you evaluate board membership opportunities to determine whether a particular organization is the right one for you?
We’ve previously talked about making friends and networking, strategic volunteering, joining professional organizations, and charitable giving, but we haven’t talked about how to get on a board.
During conversations about board membership in our comment sections, two Corporette readers explained how rewarding they found their experiences:
The year-long process of putting myself out there [to join a board], figuring out what I care about, what my skills are, what organizations are doing good work… it was so valuable. It was great to push myself like that, and I think it will have huge benefits for me down the road, both in terms of career and personal growth. —Reader S
Lawyers (we’ve had a few since I’ve been on the board) are always welcome. It has been a great experience. … You might reach out to friends / contacts / coworkers whose volunteer work sounds interesting to you and explain you’re looking to become involved in X field, and ask if they know of any upcoming opportunities or have any suggestions for people to contact. —Reader A
If you’d like to get on a board, here are a few tips:
How to Get on a Board
Volunteer to show your commitment to the organization and learn more about it — you may be more likely to hear about board vacancies, too. A good way to get yourself on the radar of the board members: offer to take meeting notes at a board meeting or committee meeting.
Try a website like Boardsource, BoardnetUSA.org, Idealist.org, or VolunteerMatch.org to find a good organization that matches your interests, and sometimes even open board positions. (Ladies, we’d love to hear your experiences with these and other sites!)
When an interview for a board position arises, do some serious prep work if it’s your first opportunity to sit on a board. This young woman’s tale of how she got her first board seat shows you how much research can pay off!
Questions to Ask to Decide Whether To Join the Board
Once you’ve managed to get an interview, prepare with these tips we’ve gathered from readers on the important questions to ask:
- Find out how the board communicates — how many phone calls, emails, and meetings are typically involved.
- Try to ascertain the quality of a board’s operation and leadership by asking questions about decision-making and funding.
- Ask about the time commitment for board members as well as fundraising expectations (including personal donations and the selling of event tickets). Another good question: do board members have term limits?
- Ask about the committee structure and the expected participation for members.
- If you’re a lawyer, ask if you’ll be expected to provide legal advice.
- Find out whether the organization has Directors and Officers (D&O) insurance.
Further Reading on How to Get on a Board:
- How to Land Your First Board Position [Levo League]
- How to Get a Seat on a Non-Profit Board [Forbes]
- A Strategic Road Map to Joining a Nonprofit Board [American Bar Association]
- Nonprofit Boards: How to Find a Rewarding Board Position [The Bridgespan Group]
- When a Business Leader Joins a Nonprofit Board [Harvard Business Review]
- 3 steps to take if you want to join a nonprofit board [Idealist]
If you’ve joined a nonprofit board, did you enjoy the experience? Is there anything you wish you’d known beforehand? What advice would you give other women who want to get on a board?
Pictured at top: fct-callendar-324, originally uploaded to Flickr by Falkirk Community Trust.
This is an execellent post, Kat and Kate! I have been thinking that I need to branch out and spend time on a non-profit board of director’s. I am thinkeing that this could help a littel bit to get exposure for me and our firm, and this will be VERY helpful to the non-profit organisation that can benefit from my legal experence. So I think that it can help BOTH of us. The manageing partner offered last week to 1) get me on the board of director’s of the bar association where he has given alot of CLE’s for FREE (tho I have helped him and have billed MY time to a few cleint’s who we shared the information). He also thought it would be a good idea if I started to volunteer MYSELF at NY Care’s for an inside job. It is NOT enough just for us to go into bad neighborhoods and clean up and paint. He said I should show them that I can use my MIND for in-house expertize. I agree.
Does anyone in the HIVE know who to ask to get onto the Board of NY Cares or the Salvation Army? I think I can help either organisation. YAY!
I DO have a suggestion NOT mentioned above: I think it is IMPORTANT to write for local FREE publication’s like OUR TOWN, or DOWNTOWN EXPRESS, and in those publication’s to highlight your legal expertise, and to offer your services (at expense cost onley) to worthy individueals. It would not fit MY situeation, since I ONLEY do WC defense, but for others who like to do work with Pro Bono Cleint’s, go out and show yourself, and offer your service’s to those peeople. It is ONLEY in this way that we women can get ahead in the boardroom, which is where we need to be represented best. YAY!!!!
Consider whether you’re better suited to volunteering versus board membership. This will vary from organization to organization, but some non-profits have give/earn requirements for board membership. This will require you to either donate yourself or solicit donations in a given amount to maintain your board position. Some boards are more active than others in coordinating the activities of the non-profit versus being visible at the annual big event and bringing out their friends and colleagues to make donations. For my age/network/availability, I’m better suited to volunteer with a non-profit and provide assistance in developing programs rather than being responsible for the fundraising side.
Like most things, I think board membership is better earned over time than something you fall into. Volunteering with an organization helps you understand what its program actually do, how fundraising benefits the cause, etc. You’ll learn that while sitting on the board, but knowing the staff, volunteers and beneficiaries on the ground level often makes for better directors.
Yes. I have been on boards where the rule is “give, get, or get off.” You should be very clear about the financial obligations before accepting a board seat.
Give is easy, but the raise is more complex. Look at your Rolodex. Are your friends a match for this org? Would they fund / support / show up? Buy tickets to your event? Or sit at a table you fund at a dinner? You may become the Roldan + Fields / other MLM person among your friends with having to do outreach to them re supporting your organization.
Also, filling tables is hard. Even when seats are free.
Has anyone had experience with having a GIA analysis done for their diamond ring. Is it worth it if you go to resell it? I know that resale value for diamonds are pretty much the pitts, but just keeping options open.
I work for an auction house and I’d say, yes, it’s worth it but only if your diamond is at least 2 carats.
Do you disclose anywhere that you will use comments to feature later in a main article? To me there is a huge difference between commenting and having that comment feature in a main article that then gets linked by other publications. Maybe it should go without saying that you can use our comments however you want but it seems like a very big change. I think you should mention that somewhere
This is not the first time it’s happened and if you’re commenting on a website, I think it’s safe to assume that your comments are not yours.
I don’t really see what the big deal is.
I’m on a board, and it has been a really interesting, fulfilling experience. A few things I would add to your list:
(1) Ask what the process is for joining the board. Some boards have a period of time where you are a prospective board member, you can attend all meetings and you’re encouraged to learn as much as you can before you make the commitment to being a board member. Other boards you become a board member right away. I personally like the prospective board member approach
(2) Find out about the board’s relationship with the executive director. In many ways the board serves as the employer for the executive director, and with that comes reviews, coaching, dealing with issues. If the executive director is performing well, not a problem. If there are issues, this can be a time suck.
(3) Most importantly – while rewarding, being on a board is a time commitment. So you better be passionate about the organization. Consider joining first as a volunteer to get the lay of the land.
Speaking from experience, accountants, especially with designations (CPAs), are usually in high demand for board positions as well!
Funny, I am actually on a Junior League Committee that is designing an initiative to increase Board member seats in community organizations. I know that both Boston and NY Junior League do an “Introduction to Being a Board Member”-type trainings at least once a year, for a nominal fee for non-Junior Leaguers. I haven’t been to one myself, but it might be worth looking into if you are in either city.
Also, has anyone heard of The Boston Club? They have a whole list of available Board positions in Boston (along with the time and $$ commitment). Curious to hear if anyone has experiences with this organization.
Make sure your malpractice coverage would extend to the board or that they have some sort of coverage in the event that the board and it’s members are sued.
Does anyone have any experience with getting involved with a board of a start-up non-profit? I’ve been on one for about a year now, and I generally find it not to be run well, but whenever I bring up concerns, I meet a TON of resistance. I’m an attorney and it’s a lot of creative-types (it’s an arts organization), and they always see me as a road block when I’m just trying to be careful and limit risk. I don’t necessarily want to quit but would love some advice for how start up boards should be run and/or advice on how to deal with people who don’t want to hear what you are saying.
Yes, I avoid those like the plague now. Any ‘working’ boards. I’m surprised the post didn’t note those- the kind where you aren’t providing strategic guidance but are running the organization- quite common. Honestly they are best done by retirees with time and experience. Full time workers? Nope total frustrating time suck.
Another way to get on boards, if it applies to you: ask your employer. Many employers have standing seats on boards and love to place leaders within the company.
Is it a complete pipe dream to think I could ever get on a corporate board? I don’t mean a Fortune 500 or anything – just a small/mid sized company that may even be privately held (so it isn’t a board in the same corporate governance sense).
I just don’t think my credentials will ever get me there. Wharton undergrad (10+ yrs ago); Ivy law school; NYC biglaw for 8 yrs (not in the corporate or tax depts. unfortunately) until I didn’t make partner; and then the SEC (not Enforcement and only an attorney advisor level in a compliance-ish group- not a Director or anything). Is there anything I can do to make myself more marketable or to make connections in ways in which people won’t roll their eyes? (I can exactly call up fellow Wharton alums 20 yrs senior to me who are CEOs at Fortune 500s bc to that crowd, my credentials are lame.) Yet I have a passion for business and solving business problems.
If those credentials don’t get you there, what kind of credentials do?
Also, you don’t have to condition your credits! 10+ years, not in corporate dept, not in enforcement…
Are there any entrepreneur networking groups in your area? Might be a good place to meet people your age/level of experience who will be looking for corporate board members in a few years.
A friend of mine went to a workshop for women interested in being on boards. It was held at Northwestern during the summer. Afterwards, I believe there was an opportunity to be on a list they circulate to companies looking to diversify their boards. Might be worth going to something like that, if you can.
If you are not already invested in the mission and the work of the non-profit, I would not approach any nonprofit for a leadership position just because you are an attorney hoping to boost your resume. There are special skills, obligations, and connections in the community that a nonprofit is looking for – just like any standard private sector business. Understanding the non-profit’s structure and culture is key to being a part of it as a leader. I am a lawyer who is a full time staff member of a non-profit – so I am speaking from personal experience here. We draw our board members from those who volunteer and donate at a high level (and basically prove themselves) over a period of years. If you have limited time to devote to board service, you want to find a good fit that makes the most of what you have to offer – both for you and the organization!
Lawyers, I suggest getting involved with the legal aid programs or other low-income legal service providers in your state as a volunteer and a donor – and stay involved throughout your career! This will boost your network, help improve our legal profession by addressing unmet legal needs in your community, and expose you to a totally different type of law that your brain might enjoy.
I do fundraising for a nonprofit, so am usually looking at this from the other side.
From the nonprofit’s side, fundraising is a HUGE part of board membership; particularly for organizations with annual budgets over about $500,000, the main thing we need from our board members is their money and their connections to people with money and/or power (e.g. foundation staff, business leaders, elected officials). Nonprofits often have a “give or get” level for fundraising they expect you to commit to; at my current employer–a large performing arts group with a $25 million annual budget–it is $50,000/year. The last place I worked–an art service organization with few individual donors and an $2.5 million annual budget–the give or get is only $7,500/year. So obviously, expectations vary widely, and the board of a large national organization like the Salvation Army is going to have very different expectations from a small community-based group. Pro bono service provision as part of your give or get is probably most likely to be valued at a smaller, more grassroots organization; in this case, occasional legal services–such as reviewing a lease, contract with a consultant, etc–could be very much needed. Be very candid about what you can offer in terms of your time, talents, and $$ at the outset.
One other thought – LinkedIn was doing a big push to try to get more nonprofits to use the site; as part of this, they encouraged nonprofits to post volunteer board positions there. So in addition to the board matching sites mentioned in the article, you might look there.
Career in philanthropy here, so I work with non-profit boards daily to evaluate how sound both they and their organizations are, plus I serve on a few myself.
I cannot stress enough how important D&O insurance is – don’t join a board without it!
Also, make sure the board does have term limits, it with hurt the organization from a granting perspective otherwise, as well as creating an in-group culture. Along the same line, many grant application will ask the percent of the board donating towards operating support as well as specific projects if the request is project-based rather than operations-based.
Try to meet with the current board or sit in a meeting, ask if they have issues making quorum for the meetings. Visit with current members to gauge the level of involvement of members – are there one or two overly enthusiastic board members or is it an equal distribution of engagement? Joining boards with a lot of dead weight does not cultivate energy for the organization.
Even with all that backgrounding, you can still be hit out of the blue – an org I serve on the board of has lost our executive director, followed three weeks later with the facility we rented closing due to structural issues, followed two weeks later with our program director leaving due to family. I’ve only been on this board for six months, it was one of the strongest in the area when I vetted them last summer!
Executive director for a non-profit here. Be careful not to come in with your own agenda before understanding the mission and work (kudos Holly for mentioning this). Also understand what type of board you are on. We have two. One set’s policy, budget, and is my “boss”. The other is the foundation board. Too often people join the foundation board and want to tell me how to run the organization without understanding the legal, budget, and staffing issues. I spend too much time at the foundation board meetings saying, ‘We cannot do that, it’s against the law (don’t have the staff, budget, etc.).’ I end up coming across as being negative because the board member wants to run the organization rather than support it.
bumping this thread to inquire about Corporate Board (observer /non-voting or voting) experience out there:
1 Any experience out there ?
2 Best ways to get on one ?
3 Good moves to bear in mind in advance, should the opportunity to join one arises ?
4…and embarrassingly: Identifying what that opportunity might look like in order to #2 ?
(would love to see a whole post on the issue if the powers that be have the appetite/interest ! Sometimes this comes up over on Wall St Oasis, the i-banker bro blog on which I lurk for counter-intel ! )