So you want to serve on a nonprofit board? From this nonprofit executive, thank you!
Serving on a nonprofit board can be an incredibly rewarding experience. But what does that really look like? What do you want to get out of this and what does the nonprofit expect of you?
I’ve worked with a number of boards over the years and here are a few things I look for in a board member.
Are you passionate about the nonprofit’s mission? Do you have a personal connection? Are you willing to be a champion for the mission? The answers to these questions can very clearly define the type of board member you will be. The most effective board members are comfortable talking about the nonprofit’s mission, whether it be with friends, coworkers or in public to a large group.
A board member with a personal story that relates to the nonprofit’s mission is pure gold. Your heart is in it from day one, you have prior knowledge and you want to see change happen.
I can’t remember many board members who have said – I want to ask people for money! Or – I love fundraising! And that is okay. I truly believe that every board member has unique value and talents that they can bring to the organization. One of my favorite board members felt that she couldn’t give enough money to make a difference and that her connections weren’t wealthy. But her connections were related to our mission and she was able to open doors that no one else could in a school district, which helped our teenage clients in wonderful ways.
I currently have a board member who has a knack for making connections. She mentions our nonprofit in casual conversations with friends and business contacts, then opens the door with an email introduction. Email introductions have paved the way for many great relationships for our organization.
Ask Hard Questions
I think there must be a rule that every nonprofit board must have at least one devil’s advocate. Not the naysayer or the whiner, but the person who asks hard questions and helps staff look at issues differently. One of these particular board members/devil’s advocate I perceived to be a pain. He was the person who took meetings in the wrong direction when he attended and had to have separate conversations before and after board meetings. But then I realized, he just had a different way of looking at issues and he truly wanted what was best for the organization. I came to value this and, in fact, I made it a habit to talk to him the day before a board meeting and get a feel for what his questions were. We didn’t change direction because of his questions very often, but the board and leadership team definitely felt stronger about the decisions we made together.
Asking hard questions also means paying attention and dedicating time to the organization outside of board meetings. Take the time to understand the financial reports and service/program reports. Ask questions if you have questions! Most likely, others have the same question and you’ll help everyone become more comfortable asking.
Please, please, please, support the staff of the nonprofit organization with which you’re working. Get to know more about them personally and professionally. The nonprofit CEO or executive director can run down the finances, the program outcomes, the operations, etc., without skipping a beat. But they also know the clients of the nonprofit. They go home every night worrying about the client who came in that day unable to find a job, pay the rent, feed a family, leave an abuser, survive a disease.
Be gentle with them. Ask them how they are occasionally. Ask what you can do for the organization. I had a board member who was CFO of a company. He called to tell me he wasn’t sure what role he could play with our organization and asked if he could sit down with me and talk through it. Of course! The result was that we got to know each other really well and he heard my frustrations with some administrative policies and he rewrote some of our employee manual. That was an incredible help to me as I was trying to fundraise and manage and do all the things required to run a nonprofit.
So now what? Call your favorite nonprofit or send an email and ask if you can chat about how you can help them. Tell them what you want to get out of the experience! And then, have passion, open doors, ask hard questions, and support staff.
Not sure how to connect with a nonprofit? Call your local United Way or Community Foundation. Some United Way agencies have a Blueprint for Leadership (or Project Blueprint) program that trains on how to be a board member.