Why You Should Serve on a Nonprofit Board
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “Board of Directors”? The popular image of a board — perhaps conjured by movies or television shows — situates board members in a stuffy office boardroom with a ridiculously huge table. You probably imagine the people at that table to be older, wealthy, and high-ranking business executives.
This perception of needing significant wealth and experience to serve on a board often deters active community members (like yourself) from joining one. But it couldn’t be further from the real picture of what a nonprofit board can be and who can serve on it. Though many promising board candidates who are more junior in their career or come from more diverse backgrounds have likely never considered serving on a nonprofit board, board opportunities for different levels of experience, skillsets, and financial backgrounds exist, especially within the small, local, and community-based nonprofit space.
Having worked with more than 400 of such small, local nonprofits, the Catalogue for Philanthropy has seen that serving on a board can be one of the best ways to leverage your time, expertise, and resources to help create greater impact in your community. An engaged board is critical to the success of any nonprofit, and such an opportunity could be a perfect fit for you as you consider how you want to make a difference locally. Change happens with community, and this is particularly true for grassroots operations that are run by and for the people. The more diverse an organization’s community of stakeholders are, the stronger the organization’s work and impact.
We believe that everyone, especially the most engaged supporters of an organization, should feel encouraged to consider open board positions as a way to get involved. Below, we outline why exactly nonprofit boards exist, what they do, and how you can get started.
So, What Is a Board?
Simply put, a board is a governance group that ensures a nonprofit organization is managed ethically, legally, and soundly. The leadership of a board encompasses three broad areas:
- Board members help establish a level of integrity for the organization and focus on its strategic direction.
- Board members are responsible for reviewing and overseeing the financial health of the organization.
- Should anything happen with the senior staff, the board is ultimately accountable for the organization.
While boards exist on a spectrum depending on the needs and structures of different nonprofits, as both the internal leadership team and the organization’s backstop, board members are typically considered one of the most committed, and key, stakeholders for a nonprofit.
What Does It Mean to be a Board Member?
The expectations for board members vary widely across the nonprofit sector, with some organizations requiring experience or expertise in particular areas and other organizations requiring none. Some nonprofits even have junior boards specifically for young professionals to join.
There is no one model for what a board looks like. The most important factor when considering the success and longevity of a board, and its nonprofit, is that it consists of engaged community members who are passionate about using their time and talent to further the mission of the organization.
Overall, we’ve seen that the three main responsibilities of a board member can include:
- Strategy and sound management, such as through annual goal setting, strategic planning for the organization, and reviewing the Executive Director(s).
- Stewarding financial and other resources, such as by reviewing financial statements and participating in the budgeting process.
- Advocacy, such as through attending events, representing the organization, fundraising for the nonprofit, sharing its work and impact with your network, and so on.
Additionally, some boards are more hands-on than others. While the purpose of a board is to work with and alongside staff members, who have the on-the-ground skills and knowledge required to implement a nonprofit’s day-to-day programming, some boards do serve as an extension of staff and align with them to assist on specific projects and operational work.
Why Is Serving on a Board Impactful?
Just as choosing to serve on a board is a deep commitment, the impact you make as a board member can make a deep difference. The process of joining a board usually involves meeting a nonprofit’s existing staff and board members, as well as better understanding the organization by attending their events, volunteering, reading up on them, shadowing meetings, and more. Preceding the decision itself is a careful consideration of what you want to invest in and whether the opportunity will allow you to contribute your money, time, and resources to an organization and cause that you truly believe in.
And it is through this commitment that you can help to shape long-term and sustainable change. Through your financial and strategic contributions to a nonprofit, you are part of ensuring its longevity. With your deep understanding of a nonprofit, you become one of its best advocates in expanding recognition and support of its work. By offering your personal and professional experience to staff members, you provide opportunities for mentorship, leadership, and development within the nonprofit sector.
When you serve on the board of a small, local nonprofit, you are also actively transforming the place where you live and the lives of you and your neighbors. Because small nonprofits are often under-funded and overlooked, the knowledge and experience you bring as a board member can make an even greater impact. This is especially vital for community-based organizations that rely on the strength of its community — your experiences as a community member matter and bringing your voice to the forefront as a board member is one powerful way to ensure an organization reflects the breadth of the people it serves.
How to Get Started
As you consider joining a board, we invite you to think about three main questions that could be helpful along your journey:
- Who and what do you care about? Is there a particular social issue you want to contribute to? What about a specific geographical area or community?
- What can you offer? What personal experience, professional skills, networks, influence, or other resources would you bring to your role as a board member?
- How do you want to help? Are you looking to assume a leadership role, serve as an extension of your current day job, get involved outside of your day job, or something else?
Once you have a plan, you can start looking for open board positions. If you already know and support a nonprofit, check their website to see if they have any listed or, better yet, reach out to them and ask!
Another great place to begin your search is through the Catalogue’s Board Connections portal. An annual membership for individuals allows you to connect with trusted local nonprofits in our network through an online portal, where you can create a profile, look through recommended openings suggested based on your personal interest and experience, and apply. Additionally, we host a nonprofit board member training that further dives into the Do’s and Don’ts of being a board member.