Serving on a nonprofit board of directors is an exceptional opportunity for professional development, career growth, and community service, but it’s not a given—you have to earn it. For those who aspire to have a seat on a board one day, this article offers actionable advice on how to align yourself for the position that best fits your goals, skills, and passion.
Tip 1: Be Self-aware
Know where your passions lie and invest in the cause
You will want to target organizations that address issues that are meaningful to you. Caring genuinely about the mission will not only help you stand out among other possible board member candidates, but it also will carry you through the hurdles you may encounter once you are appointed.
Know what you bring to the table
Boards often seek help in specific areas, including finance and accounting, fundraising, information technology, and marketing. What leadership positions have you held? What volunteer duties have you performed? How strong are your decision-making, problem-solving, and communication skills? What skills and resources will you offer? How well do you know the industry and the organization’s operating environment?
According to a Harvard Business Review article, boards seek strength of character in the following areas:
Ability to raise questions
Ability to earn trust
Map your self-assessed qualifications to the needs of the organization(s) you’d like to serve. Focus on the areas that align.
Know what you are seeking
Are you looking to build a skill set? Network with influential professionals in both corporate and nonprofit fields? Get a job in the nonprofit sector? Ask board leaders to tell you about other board members so you can understand the type of connections you’ll gain if you join that board. Find out as much as you can about them. Are they a cohesive group with a shared vision? What skills are they missing? Do they have the right mix of talent? Do they welcome questions and respect different opinions? Are they formal or informal? Given your working style and qualifications, are you a good fit?
Also, consider whether you would prefer to work with a local organization in a more grassroots style, or a national organization in a more high-profile, high-impact style? Refrain from the temptation to shoot for the stars. While a seat among high-profile directors may be appealing, you want to make sure the group is one you actually would enjoy. You can still have an amazing experience if you serve on the board of a smaller, lesser known nonprofit.
Tip 2: Do Your Due Diligence
Research and interview
Invite current and former board members out for coffee and inquire about their experiences. Ask to see copies of written policies, bylaws, and past meeting minutes. Review publicly available financial data, including annual reports and Forms 990. Evaluate for yourself how the organization uses its resources.
Understand the expectations
Understand what will be expected of you as a board member. Do you know the duties you’ll be responsible for? Most likely, you will not be compensated for your time; you may not even be reimbursed for your expenses. Will you be expected to make substantial donations, and if so, how often? How much time will you need to allot to fulfill your duties? When are board meetings held? How long will you be expected to serve? What committees are there, and on which one(s) will you likely be expected to serve? Will you be expected to leverage your own network to help raise funds for the organization?
Understand what tools and training will be available
Board members are subject to certain legal and liability concerns. Does the organization have adequate directors and officers (D&O) insurance to protect board members in the event of a lawsuit or other incident? Is there an indemnification clause in the bylaws? Onboarding and training for board members is key to their success. Does the organization provide orientation and training for new board members? Is there a manual for board service?
Understand that, while it’s flattering to be asked, it’s okay to say no
Your time is valuable, and limited. After doing your due diligence and considering your other commitments, you may decide the opportunity is not right for you at the present time. And that’s okay. It’s not rude to say no, and it’s better to say no than to say yes and be overburdened or unable to meet expectations for this important role.
Tip 3: Make a Plan and Start Now
There’s no set path to board service. Just be deliberate. Self-assess. Set a goal. Identify target organization(s). Take action. Here are some things you can do now:
Support the cause, learn a lot about the organization’s strategy and operations, and start forming key relationships by volunteering your time. Fundraise, if that’s within your skill set. Follow on social media and subscribe to e-newsletters to learn about upcoming events for the organizations that interest you. Engage with people served by the organization and gain a first-hand understanding of how the nonprofit carries out its mission.
Serve on a committee
Committees are overseen by the board, so volunteering on a committee will give you a great door into meeting current board members if you’re starting cold. Committees also give you an opportunity to learn more about the organization and determine if a board member role is for you.
Offer to take meeting notes for the board
A dependable note-taker will gain access to decision makers, build trust with the current board, and have an inside track to completing the due diligence efforts recommended above. Make a good impression and you’ll be well on your way.
Join a junior board
If you’re a young professional, consider joining a junior board. Junior boards are a great opportunity to get involved and position yourself for full board service. You’ll likely have opportunities to attend or participate in full board and/or committee meeting and build valuable relationships with current board members. Nonprofit leaders often rely on junior boards to manage projects, provide advice and suggestions, and bring much-needed skills and services to the organization, such as website development and search engine optimization, fundraising with younger generations, social media marketing and outreach, and more. Junior boards are also known as advisory councils, associate boards, youth boards, and youth councils.
Tell your network
Make it known among your personal and professional contacts, including your state society of CPAs, that you’re looking for a not-for-profit board service opportunity. Even if no one knows of a need today, they will have you top of mind when they hear of one.
Browse online services
Here are a few online resources worth checking out:
Your Keys to Success
Network, network, network
Form and nurture key relationships in the nonprofit industry, and make it widely known that you are very interested in board service generally. If you can also network within and around the organization(s) you’re most interested in via volunteer work, even better. Often, board seats are filled through referrals from current board members or staff.
Hone your skills and expertise
Continuously educate yourself in areas that are relevant to your targeted cause, the nonprofit industry, and general board service. Stay up to date on current events, nonprofit industry news, and general business news.
Articulate your value
The good news is, being a CPA already elevates your candidacy for board service. Financial oversight is an important part of board governance, so the stronger your skills in that area, the better. Consider the full spectrum of your value proposition as a board member. In just a sentence or two, can you articulate your passion for the mission, the extent of your qualifications, and your understanding of and ability to commit to the duties required?