Be a Community Leader
Are you looking for a way to help your community? Through a board position, you can advance a cause, apply your skills, and learn from civic-minded peers. Finding the right match can be a challenge, though, because you may not know which groups are active in your area, which ones are looking for board members, or whether you are the kind of person a board is seeking at the moment.
So how can you obtain a role with a group whose mission, methods, and needs align with your interests? Follow the approach below to find a match with a promising nonprofit organization!
Learn who is active and then introduce yourself.
Ask questions about each nonprofit and yourself.
Identify practical deal makers and breakers.
Step 1: Learn Who Is Active and Then Say Hello
Most people join boards upon the recommendation of friends or colleagues who are already on a board, but what if you don’t know someone in such a position?
Consult news, directories, search engines, and leadership programs to discover nonprofits whose causes matter to you.
Local newspapers and business journals carry news of groups that are launching initiatives, completing leadership transitions, or celebrating grant awards. Libraries keep directories of nonprofits; in some cases, they post such directories on their web sites. In addition, some cities have civic leadership training programs whose staff are happy to provide leads and suggestions. News articles and search engines can point you towards such programs.
Attend issue-oriented events.
During the meet-and-greet time, introduce yourself to the staff of groups whose interests match yours, learn what those people do, and ask what needs their boards have. Nonprofit practitioners’ groups, philanthropic foundations, and major players host discussions about topics ranging from transit to homelessness to literacy to animal care. Events may take forms such as lunch-and-learn presentations or discussion panels with civic leaders. Visitors are usually welcome to attend. You can learn about these events through several channels:
Online sites such as eventbrite.com or meetup.com enable you to search for nonprofit gatherings by interest area.
Local newspapers publish calendars that describe upcoming discussions and presentations about civic matters.
Umbrella groups such as civic leadership programs, Jaycees, Association of Fundraising Professionals, United Way, or Local Initiatives Support Corporation host discussions, presentations, and networking events.
Campuses host such events, too. Your local university may operate a community service center, office of public events, school of public policy or nonprofit management, or other entity that runs events and connects people to nonprofits.
Contact groups directly.
Describe what has attracted you to them and inquire about leadership opportunities. The most productive approach is usually to look for the name of the Executive Director or the Board Chair and then contact that person. A nonprofit’s “About Us” web page may provide names and contact information. If you are interested in the group but not ready to seek a leadership role, start by volunteering, demonstrate your commitment to the cause, learn about the group’s services and clientele, and then assume successively more instrumental roles en route to a board position.
Step 2: Ask About Each Nonprofit and About You
Many groups may look appealing on the surface. If you like what you see in several nonprofits but you don’t have time to participate in all of them, ask these questions to help you narrow the options.
Do I agree with the nonprofit’s blend of mission and methods?
If you have not thought about your philosophy of how social impact should happen, think about this topic before you apply to join an organization’s board. If you believe policy is more pivotal than direct service, focus on groups that are more oriented towards legislation than fieldwork. If you believe community development should be grassroots rather than top-down, focus on groups that celebrate humble origins rather than ones that are chapters of national organizations.
Will I have enough freedom and power to influence decisions?
Learn about the decision-making process as best you can before choosing to join a board. Talk to current board members, attend a board meeting, or at least read a nonprofit’s public materials to gauge who makes decisions and how. Some boards are “rubber stamps” that approve anything an Executive Director wants to do. Some are dominated by a few persuasive board directors. Some have democratic and transparent methods for making decisions.
Does the board engage at the level that matters most to me?
You may prefer a hands-on board that delves into the details of the nonprofit’s programs, or you may prefer one that only looks at “big picture” issues and leaves detailed planning to staff. To learn which approach a given board uses, ask for copies of past meeting minutes, talk to board members, or attend a board meeting so you’ll know what kinds of topics dominate board conversations. Newer organizations’ boards tend to be hands-on while more seasoned organizations’ boards are more strategic, though these distinctions don’t always exist.
Will I develop the skills and perspective I seek?
Being a board member is not just about sharing your expertise, but also about building it. Be a student. Ask yourself these questions:
What do I want to learn about an issue?
What leadership skills do I want to build?
What new forms of thinking do I want to develop?
A board can provide great ways to expand your perspective. If you are active in a field from one vantage point, consider approaching the same field from another angle. For example, health care occurs in hospitals, neighborhood health centers, global missions, and beyond. If you have worked in one of those settings, look for nonprofits that work in different health settings.
To grow your leadership skills and your knowledge of a social issue, choose a board that does these things:
Gives new board members a thorough orientation on its mission, vision, goals, history, resources, and board roles
Provides further training and regular updates to its incumbent board members
Matches new members with experienced ones who can provide guidance
Arranges gatherings where board members can get to know each other personally
Hosts site visits at places where the nonprofit serves the public, such as parks, schools, or shelters
Runs tours that describe the communities it serves
Provides reading materials about topics and trends that are pivotal to the nonprofit’s mission
Do the board members’ motivations match mine?
You might expect all board members to care deeply about the organization’s mission, but that is not always the reality. Some board members are simply looking to pad their resume, want to channel business contracts toward people they know, or want to meet fellow board members who can promote their careers. That caution aside, many board members are sincerely committed to advancing the organizations they serve. Talk to your potential board colleagues to learn why they serve. If you sense there will be troubling conflicts between their reasons and yours, either look elsewhere or commit to do your best to alter the culture of the board.
Am I prepared?
Sometimes boards are so eager to recruit new talent, they will vote in new directors before they have vetted candidates or assessed their needs adequately. In fact, sometimes they have only a general idea of which kinds of people they should add to their roster. In such cases, they might not have a deep understanding of how well prepared you are for a board role. You can help them by assessing your own preparation. Ask yourself whether you believe you know enough about the group’s mission and approach, you grasp the overall issues the group addresses, and you have perspectives, skills, and connections that will make a meaningful impact. If you don’t feel you are ready for a board role, explore options to serve through a committee, task force, or general volunteer assignment.
What kind of commitment do I wish to make?
Expectations for directors vary from one organization to another. The clearer you understand what you wish to do and what the board expects you to do, the better.
Ask the board and ask yourself these questions:
What are the attendance requirements? Am I able and willing to attend at this frequency?
What kinds of donations, if any, are board members expected to make? Am I able and willing to make these donations?
How am I expected to represent this organization? Do I have the knowledge, skills, and passion to be such an advocate?
Do I want a role that will leverage my professional position?
If so, emphasize your current skills when you discuss a possible board position. If not, downplay your current job so you won’t be typecast for a similar role on a board. People with specialized skills in finance, accounting, fundraising, or the law often get slotted into positions as treasurers, fundraising committee chairs, or legal advisors for nonprofit boards, so if you have such skills, think ahead about whether you want your board role to be an extension of your career focus or an opportunity to do something different.
Step 3: Identify Deal Makers and Breakers
Building upon Step 2, know what your “deal makers” and “deal breakers” are for each leadership opportunity you find. These items may range from the conceptual to the practical. Ask yourself these questions to decide whether to say yes, proceed with caution, or say no to a potential role.
What board responsibilities would I be thrilled to have?
Are there any duties I would be expected to fulfill that I would rather avoid?
Will this board enable me to learn about a social issue or community that is important to me?
Will I have enough opportunities to build skills as leader, thinker, planner, and communicator?
Will this organization provide the best venue for me to apply my talents towards a cause?
Of all the nonprofits I have met, does this one’s mission, values, methods, scale of operations, and needs best match my values, abilities, and goals?
Can I reach board meetings on time?
Does the frequency of activities match my schedule?
Will any upcoming trips limit my involvement?
Am I comfortable with any requirement for giving? (Some nonprofits expect their board members to make financial gifts.)
Can I make a meaningful and reasonable contribution?
Might this group present a conflict by serving as a source of income or competition for my employer or myself?
Do any of this group’s policies or practices conflict with my moral and ethical values?
When I think about this group, do I instinctively smile? How much do I enjoy describing it to my friends and relatives?
Do the board and staff members have a warm and positive spirit?
Step 4: Take Action
Choose a role that enables you to make a meaningful impact through activities you enjoy, that fosters learning, that has scheduling and financial commitments you can handle, and whose values you embrace.
Now keep the momentum in your favor! You have taken the time to travel to open houses at several nonprofits, read the local news, conduct conversations, and think about your options. Follow up with phone calls or written correspondence to the groups that interest you most. Ask about the next step towards a board or committee role, request information for a friend who shares your interest in the cause, request an office visit, or simply thank the people who have met with you.
Since many nonprofit organizations are pressed for time, be proactive. Do not assume a nonprofit will follow up with you first. Show you are truly interested and take the initiative. If the nonprofit’s board is as good as you’ve come to believe it is, you will get a timely response. If it is not, move on to your next option. There are lots of groups that appreciate sincere and determined volunteers.
Make Your Mark!
Have a wonderful time exploring the nonprofit community. Use your unique personality and capabilities to make our world a better place!