Since my early days in corporate America working with Fortune 500 firms, I have been involved in the world of nonprofit organizations as a volunteer. I’ve been a member and served on numerous committees and boards. My career eventually led me to work for several nonprofit organizations. As an employee, I not only worked directly with executive directors and board members, I was also actively engaged in developing boards and recruiting board members.
I have seen it all.
The passionate, but misaligned. The resume filler. The perpetually too busy to meaningfully contribute. Just to name a few.
Along the way, I’ve also worked with and recruited highly intelligent, competent, committed and dedicated individuals who are in “the right seat on the bus”.
What’s to come.
I’m writing this to help you become one of the latter types of board members – ones who willingly give their time, talent, and treasure to the organizations they serve; and to help nonprofits get the right board members on their team – the ones who selflessly work on the governance and fundraising side of the organization, enabling the staff to focus on the mission.
There is an art and a science to joining a nonprofit board. The process is a combination of intelligent due diligence and gut-check introspection.
Before we begin, let’s talk about why you want to join a nonprofit board. You’ve heard it’s a great way to network. And, that’s true. The ultimate satisfaction you’ll get from joining a board is to give back, to satisfy a philanthropic need you have inside.
People on nonprofit boards give:
- Time in committees and board meetings.
- Treasure for events and donations.
- Talent in their board role.
Boards are made up of a variety of people from a variety of industries and disciplines. They may include: accountants, attorneys, bankers, human resources, insurance, marketing/PR, public officials, realtors, subject matter experts, and more. Regardless of their role, the best board members are also well prepared. In addition to attending meetings, they spend time preparing for the meeting. This is not about getting credit just for showing up. It’s about giving back.
Once you have decided to join a nonprofit board, the first step is to decide what’s important to you. There are nonprofit organizations dedicated to virtually every topic under the sun. Are you more interested in the Arts? Children? Animals? Education? Hunger? Or other Basic Needs?
Then you need to decide about size and geography. Are you interested in a local, national, or international organization?
Once you understand where your topical interest lies and the scope of the organization you’re interested in, you need to drill down into the sub-categories. Let’s say that you’ve decided that you’re interested in providing your time, talent and treasure to support an organization dedicated to education. What area of education would you like to focus on? The choices are many – adult literacy, pre-kindergarten special needs kids, education of homeless youth, college for all, English as a second language, and more. This is only a partial list!
For you to be effective on a nonprofit board (and that’s why you’re doing it, right?), you need to be passionate about the cause you are committing to support. Make no mistake, you will be supporting the organization. Nonprofits need to focus the resources they have on succeeding at their mission. They rely on their board to bring their business acumen (talent) to the table and provide the governance and fundraising (time & talent) the organization needs to succeed.
It is vital that you make the right selection for you. Only when you’ve done that will the nonprofit have the best board possible.
If you don’t make the right choice you may become one of the wrong types of board members. Early in my career it happened to me. I decided I was interested in the Arts. Without a lot of forethought, I joined the board of an organization focused on providing live entertainment. After attending a few monthly board meetings, I was asking myself, “What am I doing here?!?” At the next board meeting the annual calendar was an agenda item. A quite heated discussion ensued. It became my last straw. Deciding (or rather arguing) about whether we should run “The Lion King” or a one-woman show was not how I wanted to invest my time. Their mission had sounded like fun, but it turned out that I just wasn’t passionate about it. I hadn’t done my homework.
At a minimum, as a board member you will be committing to attending monthly board meetings and some level of financial support. Typically, these are unpaid positions. (There are some exceptions, but they are rare.) It’s important for everyone that you select an area of interest that is right for you.
Part 2 will focus on finding the right nonprofit organization board for you to join.
Now that you have defined your passion (as discussed in Part 1), you need to find the right nonprofit organization to volunteer for as a board member.
The many ways
There are many ways to identify potential nonprofit organizations that will make good candidates for you to choose from, including:
- Search the internet or check out sites like Volunteer Match or Idealist in your area and area of interest
- Check out local community civic engagement organizations like Leadership Tomorrow or Seattle Works who help match board members and organizations seeking board members
- Check in with your professional association (i.e. WACPAs or WA Bar Association) as specialty skills are in strong demand
- Check out nonprofits that serve your neighborhood or community by checking with your local chamber of commerce, Rotary or other service club
- Ask colleagues and co-workers
- Check out local business publication’s Philanthropy Reports
- Reach out to your local Community Foundation
- Plug in to your local Nonprofit trade association or group
There is value in HR
If you work for a large corporation, be sure to check with your HR or Corporate Social Responsibility department. Many keep a list of who in your company volunteers for which organization, as well as the various nonprofits in the area and their board member requirements. Banks keep this information as a regular course of business. They are required by law to give back by the Community Reinvestment Act. In addition, many large law firms and accounting firms require board service of their prospective Partners and large technology employers encourage community engagement as part of professional development.
If you are serious, say so
Another good way to get recommendations is to add that you are interested in joining a nonprofit to your elevator speech. Talk about it at networking and other professional events. Get the word out.
Whatever the source, I recommend you make a list. Then narrow down your choices by applying the criteria you’ve developed. Consider your talent and area of passion, combined with the mission, size, geographic location, etc. for each of the organizations on your list.
When evaluating your shortened list, be sure to consider how much time you can contribute and what kind of financial commitment you can make. Most nonprofit boards have some financial commitment they require from their board members. It may take the form of buying X number of tickets to a fundraiser or making an in-kind donation to an auction (your timeshare for a week?) or writing a check.
Other things you should research and evaluate include:
- Current board members
- Executive team members
- Mission and vision statements
- Staff and Board turnover & retention rates
- Board meeting minutes
- Organizational financial statements
Your research will enable you to develop a short list of potential nonprofit organizations you think might be a good fit for you. At this point, that is exactly what you’re looking for – more options.
Now you are ready to do your due diligence in-person.
If your research hasn’t turned up all of the answers to your questions, this is the time to ask. Find out what the expectations are for board members regarding time, financial commitment, etc. Do they expect board members to raise money? Is there a Board Member Job Description?
Get introductions to current board members. Talk to some of the staff members. Attend an event. Attend a board meeting. Try the organizations on your short list on for size.
By becoming a board member, you will be committing to supporting your nonprofit of choice. They will be relying on your time, treasure, and talent. It is up to you to make sure you’re making the right choice to find your best fit.
Looking forward to Part 3
Now that you have found the nonprofit you are passionate about; we will cover the process and best practices you should follow to join the board in Part 3. If you are new, be sure to subscribe so we can keep you up to date!
You have found the nonprofit board you want to join – now what?!?
There are still several steps you should take to ensure the right fit for you and for them. Here are 5 best practices to help you on your way.
Continue your due diligence.
Schedule a meeting with a current Board member. Make sure you re-confirm all of the details you’ve previously uncovered, i.e. time and financial requirements, etc.
Ask if they will provide you with a Board Package. (If one isn’t available that should also inform your decision.)
A board package should include collateral materials; organization history and structure; lists of board members, company affiliations, committees & chairs; as well as the day-to-day details about time and place. In addition, the board package should include information on Directors and Officers Insurance, and an application.
Ask about their new board member onboarding process. Is there a manual for board members? Is annual training provided?
Request and review at least 3 months of financial statements, and board meeting minutes for the last 3 to 6 months.
If you have questions be sure to ask for clarifications.
It would be a shame to discover, after you’ve joined the board, that there is an unfunded pension liability or a discrimination lawsuit pending.
- Continue your due diligence. (Sorry, you’re not quite done yet!)
Meet the Board Chair. Is this someone you can work with?
If appropriate, meet with the Executive Director or CEO. They report to the Board, after all.
Tour their facility. Do they have enough “boots on the ground” to accomplish their mission?
I cannot emphasize this enough, writing thank you notes is not only good manners, it may also get you this board seat and maybe your next one, too.
Write personal, hand-written, hard copy thank you notes to everyone. Everyone you’ve met in the organization.
Help keep the USPS in business – buy stamps and mail them. As much as we all rely on email, we all still love to get letters through the mail.
Evaluate all of the information you’ve gathered. Decide if you’re in or not.
If everything makes sense (including your gut reaction) then commit. Fill out the application and email it in.
Once your application is accepted, (sorry, still not done!) start writing again. Yes, more of those personal, hand-written, hard-copy thank you notes sent via snail mail, to thank everyone who helped you join the board of the nonprofit that best suits you.
Once you join the board your journey as a board member for a nonprofit organization will truly begin.
There are a few more best practice steps you will find it worthwhile to complete:
- In addition to attending board meetings, make it a regular practice to have periodic one-on-one meetings with other board members and the board chair and executive director.
- Send out an email announcement to your network about your new position as a board member. Be sure to mention the nonprofit you’ve selected and why.
- Talk to the organization’s marketing team about issuing a press release naming you as having joined the board.
- The email announcement and a press release are great ways to start your financial asks and to get others to join the board or support the organization.
After having gone through this process, you’ll be as energized and excited as I am to attend board and committee meetings knowing that you’ve found the right fit for you and that your ongoing efforts will make a difference in your community.
Give it some thought. If you have thoughts or questions, please comment below.
About the Author
Jacki Lorenz is a co-founder and partner of Valtas Group. With 40 years in the business community, Jacki’s career has spanned Fortune 100 corporations to national financial institutions. After leaving corporate America, Jacki’s latest full-time nonprofit endeavor was as the major gifts director at the Millionair Club Charity in Seattle. Since joining Valtas, Jacki continues to contribute to the nonprofit community through her legendary network, enabling her to connect nonprofit organizations to the right resources. She holds several nonprofit board positions in support of her nonprofit passion for Basic Needs. Connect with Jacki here >