There are many personal and professional benefits to joining a nonprofit board. Personally, board service is a meaningful way to give back to your community and meet people with shared values and interests. Board members can impact issues they care about and experience the “warm glow” that comes from doing good. Studies even show that volunteering has physical and mental health benefits. In addition, board members sometimes remark that they feel proud to model civic and communal responsibility to their children and families.
Professionally, serving on a nonprofit board may help grow your network and raise your profile. You are likely to learn new things about the subject matter the organization focuses on, governance, fundraising, human resources, marketing and your community, just to name a few. Nonprofit board service provides members with the opportunity to develop and exhibit leadership skills such as public speaking, running meetings, strategic planning, managing important stakeholder relationships, meeting with funders, event and project management, and more. These experiences build skills and confidence that can transfer professionally.
Most boards will expect members to serve on at least one committee. Committees are often the work horses of boards and are a way for members to contribute their expertise or explore an interest in depth. There are standing committees (required by the organization’s bylaws) such as executive, finance, nominating and development committees. There are also ad hoc committees (not required by the bylaws) that the board leadership decides are needed based on the stage or circumstance of the organization, such as a committee for strategic planning, a CEO search or an anniversary year celebration.
Best practice is for the board chair and/or the executive to meet with all board members individually and gauge their interests to determine which committee assignment is the best fit. Often if a board member has specialized skills like accounting or finance, they will be asked to serve on the finance committee. If the member has the skills but would prefer a different assignment, he or she shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. As a volunteer, a board member should be comfortable and happy with his or her committee assignment and in turn, work hard on behalf of the organization.
Nonprofits need board members who can contribute their wealth, wisdom, work and web to the organization and who have a variety of backgrounds, experience, characteristics and attributes. You can still be an effective board member without a financial background as long as you are comfortable with the board’s role in financial oversight or are willing to learn.
The board reviews and approves a budget for the organization and monitors its financial health. The board is also responsible for the long-term sustainability of the organization and mitigating against risks.
Not everyone on the board will have a background in finance. There will be a finance and maybe separate audit and endowment committees. However, all board members will need basic financial literacy to fulfill their roles and responsibilities. Best practice is for organizations to provide training to ensure this is the case. Often a more seasoned staff or board member is willing to help anyone with less experience get up to speed. In the event your organization does not, financial training is available online or in your area, as this is a common training need.
Ensuring that your organization has adequate financial resources – i.e., fundraising or development -- is a core role and responsibility of nonprofit boards. Before you join a board, a prospective member should ask if the board has a formal board giving policy. Sometimes there is a minimum amount that board members must “give” and/or they are expected to “get” or raise. In other cases, board members are asked to make a personally meaningful gift, and there is less of a mandate and more of a deep hope that they will help with fundraising. If the organization has events, board members definitely should attend and encourage others to do so as well.
Board members can play many different important roles in developing financial resources. These range from making introductions to potential donors, to nurturing relationships with current and prospective donors, to making the ask or soliciting donations to stewarding donors after they make an investment. Other board members may help with events, research and writing grants, or corporate giving.
The key is to find a way a board member feels comfortable with taking part in development and to take on as much as he or she is willing to do in a timely fashion. Nonprofits – or for-impact organizations – rely on philanthropy to carry out their missions and fulfill their visions. When board members partner with the staff to open doors and raise funds, organizations can have more impact.
Nanette Fridman, Founder & Principal of Fridman Strategies, is a speaker, consultant, trainer & coach for impact-driven organizations & leaders. She specializes in governance, fundraising, strategic planning & developing talent and has published Holding the Gavel: What Nonprofit Board Leaders Need to Know.