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Want to Work for a Nonprofit? Try Joining a Board

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One way to help make the transition from the corporate world to the public impact space is to join a nonprofit board, especially if you already have organizations or issues you are passionate about. Board membership is a great way to network and gain experience in the nonprofit industry.

So how do you go about joining a board? And once you do, what are your responsibilities? Read on for tips from experts about what it’s like to serve on a nonprofit board and how to get the most out of your experience.

Legal duties

Serving on a nonprofit Board of Directors is a big responsibility. As a fiduciary of the organization, it will be your job to hold the director and the organization accountable.

As a member of a board, you will have three legal duties that you are required to abide by:

  1. Duty of Care: Put in your best effort by attending meetings, paying attention, and asking the right questions.
  2. Duty of Loyalty: Avoid conflicts of interest and always put the interests of your nonprofit above your personal or professional interests.
  3. Duty of Obedience: Make sure the organization is abiding by local, state, and federal laws.

Planning for the future

Your work extends beyond what is legally required. First and foremost, it will be your responsibility to look strategically at the organization and plan for its future, says Andy Davis, Director of Education for Boardsource.

Since staff members are often caught up in the day to day, it is important that board members can take a step back and look at the overall plan. It will be your job to think about where the nonprofit will be six months, one year, or even a decade down the road. You will likely work with other board members and staff on long-term strategic plans.

If you are at a smaller nonprofit where you may also volunteer to work at events, administer the website, or help out with marketing, it is vital that you are always able to step back and look strategically at the longevity and health of the organization.

Giving and asking for money

The most common task board members are asked to help with is fundraising. Many boards have a requirement that each member donates or brings in a certain amount. If you are reading this and thinking: “Wait, I don’t make a huge income and I don’t hang out with rich people,” then Davis suggests that you stop and think about what else you can bring to an organization. Maybe you can attend the annual fundraiser or organize a crowdfunding campaign to bring in new lower level donors.

“We believe in board diversity, so it’s okay that not everyone can give at the same level,” Davis says. “Sure, a bunch of old white guy lawyers can write those checks right now. But young people can contribute too while they are volunteering and continuing to grow their networks.”

A regular time commitment

Overall, as a board member you should always expect to contribute more time than just attending board meetings, Davis says. There will be committee work, fundraisers, and other activities throughout the year so make sure you are prepared and know what your expectations are. If you are at a larger nonprofit, your work might be mostly fundraising and strategic planning. But if you’re at a smaller nonprofit with limited staff, you might also be asked to volunteer with programmatic activities. Make sure you find out how much time you will be expected to give and ask yourself if you will be able to commit.

Check out the extensive resources and tools available on Boardsource to learn more about board member expectations and duties.

How to find your ideal match

Searching for the right board position can be like looking for a job that's a match. It takes time and you have to do your research. Here are some steps to take in order to find the right fit for you:

  • Make sure you are interested in joining a board for the right reason, says Davis. While it can be a good career move, he says it is important that you always put the needs of the organization first.
  • Figure out where you want to get involved. If you have organizations in mind, ask a staff leader or current board member for a one on one to discuss your potential involvement. Maybe even start by volunteering for the organization. If you don’t know where to start, check with the local nonprofit association in your state as they may have a listing of nonprofits that are seeking board members and/or volunteers.
  • Third, do your research. Once you know the organization you want to work with, make sure you learn as much about it as you can. Understand not just the issues, but how the organization is governed. Ask to see a copy of the bylaws or meeting minutes so you can learn about the role of the board. You can also learn a lot about a nonprofit organization by checking out its profile on Guidestar or Charity Navigator. Both sites provide a slew of data about nonprofits, including where and how they spend their money. And check out the organization’s profile on too!
  • Think about what you can bring to the organization. Davis says to think about not just what you do for a day job, but what you may be interested in doing, too. Boards may be looking for someone with real estate experience, an accounting background, tech skills, or a background in communications, for example.

Ask the right questions

Just like with a job interview, make sure you are given an opportunity to ask questions about what you can expect should you join the board. Some questions to ask include:

  • How much money are board members required to donate per year?
  • How much money are board members required to fundraise per year?
  • What particular skills are you looking for in a board member?
  • When and how long are the board meetings?
  • Am I required to join a committee and what are the committee options?
  • What is the chair’s leadership style?
  • What jobs and tasks will I be given?
  • How many hours per week/month/quarter am I expected to give?
  • Does the organization have Directors and Officers Liability Insurance?

Benefiting from board service

When Ericka Fowler left her New York City corporate law job in 2009, she knew she wanted to break into the nonprofit industry. After moving to the Denver area, she went on to earn a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Colorado, Denver. Shortly after beginning the program, Ericka joined the Boulder Community Health Ambassadors, a volunteer run organization that raises funds for the local hospital system.

Joining the board, she says, helped catapult her career into the nonprofit industry. Today, she is a lawyer for Bridge to Justice in Colorado.

Ericka credits her board and volunteer experience with helping her land her current job. Not only did it help her network in the community, it also helped her to acquire new, useful skills. She learned how to ask people for money, gained leadership experience serving as the board’s co-chair and supervising volunteers, and enhanced her IT skills by managing the website and email list. And even though she works as an attorney, she says that she uses all of these skills at her current job because it is a small organization where everyone helps out.

“Asking people for money and help is major skill set,” she says. “I never liked to do it before. I never thought I was good at it. But now I am comfortable with it and it is a valuable skill for anyone who wants to work in nonprofits, even if you are not going into a fundraising job.”

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About the Author | Samantha Fredrickson has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.

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