Serving on a non-profit board is a full body exercise in governance. Board members contribute far more than just their votes. They fill a vital leadership role that engages both their subject matter expertise and their leadership skills.
A board member’s role is to advance their organization’s mission and vision. They do so by understanding and championing the needs and values of all stakeholders who interplay with the organization. To serve their institution well, board members must be good listeners, versatile professionals and big picture thinkers.
It’s a thrill and a challenge to steer an organization as a member of a leadership team. Each board member has to deftly strategize as it relates to his or her particular area of expertise but also play the larger game of governance, acting as the generalist the organization needs.
If you’re considering serving on a non-profit board, here’s what you need to know as you pursue that ambition.
The value of service:
Board service yields professional rewards. If you’re an attorney, an IT professional, a marketing professional, or an engineer, for example, you may find that it takes time to advance into a leadership role in your industry. In some fields, professionals hone their skills as specialists for several years before the opportunity to steer a team presents itself. Board service is an ideal way to strengthen leadership skills in the interim.
Generally, board members claim specific roles, outlined on a board matrix, that align with their professional expertise. Additionally, board members may be asked to serve on special committees that address specific needs or issues within the organization.
While each board member may play a role of specialist in his or her subject matter area, board members also work collectively to direct the organization. This is one reason that board leadership is such an outstanding experience for a professional - it stands to refine leadership capabilities while presenting an opportunity to exercise their subject matter proficiency in a realm outside their day-to-day experience.
If you have the ambition to be a leader at some point in your career, non-profit board service is an ideal way to learn what that work entails, exercise the skills it requires, bolster your resume with relevant experience and build your professional network.
How to prepare:
Assuming a role on a non-profit board is a tremendous responsibility. If you’re considering it, you need to learn everything you can about the non-profit and what the organization requires of board members financially and in terms of their time commitment.
Choose an organization that you know and that excites you. Attend projects or programs offered by the organization. See the non-profit’s work in action. Talk with stakeholders - employees, customers, beneficiaries of the organization’s work, volunteers and board members.
Next, examine how the organization operates. Review the annual report. There you’re likely to learn about the programs and projects in greater details-who the organization reaches with its services, how many people it helps, how many programs it offers, the history of the organization, etc.
The annual report will also give you a snap shot of the financials. Double check what you learn. Charity Navigator and Guidestar are both excellent resources. There you can learn important information about the efficiency of the charities you’re considering. You can also track down 990 tax forms, which stand to give you a deeper sense of the financials. Take time to ensure that the non-profit is financially healthy and well-positioned to succeed.
Learn about what the organization requires of board members. Review the bylaws. Learn about dues, fundraising obligations, and time commitments. Fund out how often the board meets. If members are also expected to serve on special committees, learn what that commitment entails. Find out if the meetings are held locally, via teleconference or if travel will be required. If travel is necessary, is it at board members’ expense?
You need a clear picture of the commitment you’re making before you sign on.
Serving on a non-profit board can be an excellent, career-building experience. At the same time, it can be satisfying and fulfilling to further the work of a worthy non-profit.
Apply the same care and diligence you would in a job search; finding fit is just as important.
Once you’ve done that reconnaissance, enjoy the experience. It stands to enhance far more than just your resume.