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April 9, 2011 9:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you get on a nonprofit organization's board of directors?

I have been told that several nonprofit organizations need members on their board of directors. But I have not been invited to serve on one. I wouldn't expect to be asked, given I am relatively new to town and I don't seem to know the people that make such requests and recommendations.

I want to be on a board because I think it can be a good experience to see how an organization works from that point of view. I would be interested in serving on the board of a charitable nonprofit organization.

I have volunteered off and on for organizations like the United Way, Big Brothers and Sisters, the Ronald McDonald House and Habitat for Humanity.

Assuming you know what organizations you want to work with, how do you go about doing it? Any action steps or personal experiences would help.
posted by abdulf to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Attend public board meetings (contact the secretary to find out when these are).
Research the organization whose board your are targeting.
Find out the backgrounds of current and past board members, and discover
who has been there the longest.
Get onto a committee, and do some work for them.
Then, as you become one with them, you'll become one of them.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:52 PM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Large organizations typically look for high end people who can open doors for them to serve on their board. If you look at organizations like the United Way, Big Brother and Sisters, the Ronald McDonald House and Habitat for Humanity you'll see that their board members are typically leaders in their local communities or else on the global stage, and so can open doors that most people can't. See here for the list of Habitat for Humanity's board members.

So, if you want to serve on the board of directors of an organization, either target a much smaller organization or else undertake those activities which will make you a prominent person with a well known public profile
posted by dfriedman at 9:55 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you know the organization? Do they know you? Do some thinking and self-evaluation first, esp. defining what skills you have to offer the organization. Many Boards try to find candidates that fit a particular need they have at the time - ie: experience with building projects or fund raising.


• Ask if there's an application you can submit, or whether there's a particular time of year when the Board turns over. Also find out who's doing the selection and what the process is.
• If there are any organizations in the area that serve other non-profits (this one in Ann Arbor may be unique, I don't know), check to see if they offer board member training/networking events.
• Get to know the administrative staff at the non-profit you're interested in - it never hurts to volunteer or be a regular at events so that you become a familiar face. A demonstrated passion for the cause should be the first and most important requirement.
• Network with some of the current Board members - ask them about their work on the Board, their background, how they were chosen, etc.

Good luck!
posted by hms71 at 9:56 PM on April 9, 2011

Different kinds of organizations are looking for different things from their board members, but in general, there are two kinds of boards: the "volunteer board," where board members provide services (they write the newsletter and lead the tours), and the "fundraising board," where members leave the work to staff and focus on ensuring the organization's financial health. Generally, the smaller the organization, the more their board is full of volunteers. Most are something of a hybrid and carefully ensure that board members understand and support the organization's goals and activities.

Volunteer board, path one: develop relevant and very useful expertise or relationships. Become an attorney who works with those kinds of projects, for instance.

Volunteer board, path two: Offer to volunteer in greater and greater capacities (e.g., attending the litter cleanup day, then organizing the next litter cleanup, then organizing the silent auction at their next fundraiser). Make sure you're volunteering for organizations with local boards.

Fundraising board: become a major donor, ideally with money earned through a profession where you learn accounting and organizational development, while maintaining a side interest in whatever the organization's mission is.
posted by slidell at 10:04 PM on April 9, 2011

I came to serve on a non-profit board because I wrote a letter of introduction to the president. We met for lunch and she invited me to fill a non-voting position. The direct approach might work :-) HTH!
posted by Calzephyr at 10:07 PM on April 9, 2011

I'm a board member for a small non-profit. In my case, I was approached by members of the board, but we've also had people join by approaching us and saying they were interested. In our case, it would be best if you researched the organization, then contacted the board chair and explained why you were interested in joining and what relevant experience (e.g. financial, legal, fundraising, marketing) you could bring to the position. Dropping off a CV/resume is good. If we had a spot open and felt you were a good fit, you'd be invited to the AGM, where you would be nominated by someone. Then the members would vote.

Where I live, everyone who is able and willing is already serving on umpteen boards and committees, so when there is fresh blood, so to speak, everyone pounces! If you tell all the people you DO know that you are interested in joining a board and what your skills are, you'll have a better likelihood of that info getting to relevant people. In my town, the non-profit sector is pretty well-connected and everyone knows everyone else. If I know someone is interested in board work, I tell the people I know who are looking for members. Word of mouth can be your friend.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:09 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The same way that you get a leadership position in any other field: experience, hard work and credentials or nepotism. It sort of sounds as if you think it should be open to anyone simply because it is not-for-profit.
posted by Raichle at 10:45 PM on April 9, 2011

I would look into any young professional/networking organizations in your area. Sometimes they have information about that, or seminars about joining boards.
posted by radioamy at 11:06 PM on April 9, 2011

Seattle's Cascade Bicycle Club recently had some drama and decided to replace their entire board of directors - their bylaws required nominations and a vote from all members. A friend got nominated and between his excellent public image and involvement in the club's activities he got on the board - extensive involvement with the previous board members would most likely have been seen as a detriment. You should definitely find out the process of organizations you're interested in working with - the approach you'll want to take could be affected.
posted by lantius at 11:13 PM on April 9, 2011

If you work in business there are organizations that exist to introduce people from the business world to non-profits with the aim that they can bring their skills to their board of directors.

If you have specific skills e.g. legal, financial, just identify the non-profit you are interested in and volunteer your self.

Even if you don't this approach might well bear fruit with smaller and medium sized non profits. I work for one and an the president of the board of directors for another. The non-profit I work for is a reasonable size (a $2 million per annum turnover) but it still scrabbles to find enough people to sit on the board. Certainly the one I'm president for would not turn anyone down who was keen as long as they were (vaguely) competent and the same would go for the organization my wife works for.

The role of board of governors should be strategic planning, oversight and development. So the more knowledge of, and interest in these you have the better. Incidentally I have been doing a lot of work on reforming governance recently and have been reading research in the area. The one factor, in the research I read, consistently linked with poor performance in boards of directors was having a board consisting primarily of people who knew or were acquainted with each other, so don't worry too much about thinking its about who you know, aim to develop relevant skills and knowledge then offer your services.
posted by tallus at 12:33 AM on April 10, 2011

I just rolled off of a board position after my three year commitment was up. My experience matches Slidell's -- there are non-profits who mainly want their boards to help them raise money and provide oversight, and there are boards who provide services and do more heavy lifting. My take is it is a maturity thing: older/bigger non-profits that have professional staff evolve into the former category.

All of the advice up-thread looks good. If your goal is to serve on a board, I would suggest that in addition you do a little research on the non-profits you are interested in to verify a good fit before jumping in with both feet. The non-profit's website is your starting point, then see if you can glean anything from Guidestar and see if the non-profit has to submit an IRS 990 (all 501(c)(3)s do). The point of this is to see if you fit the pattern of their board and to learn something about the governance and finances. If the board is of the fund-raising/door-opening variety, be aware that there will likely be a personal financial commitment. It is important for the executive director to tell potential donors that 100% of the board contributed last year and they gave a total of $X. If all of that works for you, I would also suggest a direct approach -- contact the executive director, ask for a meeting, and tell him/her of your interest.
posted by kovacs at 5:36 AM on April 10, 2011

I've served on a couple of boards. I have a specific skill boards are always looking for (CPA) so think about what you bring to the table. I was asked to join my first board and I asked to join my second board after going to a couple of their fundraisers and talking to the inspiring executive director.

As part of my board duties recently I went to an educational evening about building not for profit boards and there were many boards that were in need of people. It became a lively topic of discussion as the not for profit professionals all agreed that board turnover was crucial to growth of organizations but also found that it was difficult to find suitable, reliable people. A board commitment can be 2 to 4 years and can keep you as busy as an extra part time job. It is also very personally rewarding and allows you to spend time with extraordinary people.

I would go to activities and fundraisers related to the not for profit I was interested in and talk to people. Let them know your skills and expertise. If that isn't possible, go to the volunteer center for your area and ask if they have any boards that need help.

Good luck!
posted by readery at 5:39 AM on April 10, 2011

In St. Louis, there is an organization called BoardLink that matches potential board members with non-profits. You might want to see if there is a similar organization in your city.
posted by hworth at 6:44 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

All of the advice I scanned above seems accurate, and my $.02 may be redundant, but if you're looking for war stories...

Rarely does a non-profit board take on people from outside their circle of known persons. Finding one in a directory and calling and saying "I'd like to be on your board" just isn't going to happen. If someone were to pick you or approach you cold and say "we'd like you to be on our board," (with a limited exception I'll explain later) - RUN. The organization is in some kind of deep doo-doo, and unless you think you have the talents to bail them out and want a full-time, probably unpaid job, you don't want to be part of that.

When people say things like "our board is always looking for volunteers," it's either a troubled situation like I described or (more likely), what they mean is "I wish some of our members/our community/our constituents who have been sucking the teat too long and not giving back would step up." They are not soliciting outsiders. So you're not doing something wrong; it's just not the nature of the beast.

Now, my limited exception - a lot of the work of boards is financial in nature. RAISING money, and accounting for money.

So two exceptions.

If you're well off and want to buy your way in, give a lot of money. Even then, don't be so crude as to say "Here's my check; I'd like that 3rd seat by the door." You make some donations for a while, you show up at some functions, and make your availability known. It still takes some time, and it's still expected that you'll show some actual interest in the group, but it definately accelerates the process.

Another is - you're a CPA, or at least have experience as a treasurer or do bookkeeping at work. There are never enough CPAs to do all the accounting work. A friend of mine is the treasurer of half the organizations I'm involved with, because there aren't enough people willing to step up. This may vary by community, but in my medium-sized town this is the case. Be warned; it's more complicated than balancing a checkbook. Non-profits are often either trying to apply for a 501C (tax-exempt) status or trying to make sure their books conform to that or other IRS requirements. The IRS looks very hard at non-profits which are at the financial level of a small business, because so many have abused the non-profit concept to essentially run a business and not pay taxes. If you're in this category, canvas a few organizations and you'll probably find one that has work for you to do.

Now, I'm not rich and not a CPA - here's my experience:

I've served or am serving on boards such as: a bicycle club, a Rotary club, a symphony orchestra's "auxiliary" board (basically the sub-board that mainly concerns itself with the youth symphony - I served as a liason for a committee), a local non-profit which conducts "field trips" for youth and adults to learn about local government, health care, and other major institutions in the community (known in many areas as "Leadership [name of your community]), and the local chamber of commerce.

In every case I became involved not because I looked at the group and said "I'd like to be on their board," but because I was interested in the activity (Rotary and the chamber is mainly a work-related interest, if you know what I mean), became a member or volunteer, and started showing up. Eventually you'll form personal relationships to the board members, as they usually show up at these things too, and it comes naturally. Really, it does. In every group, there's about 20% of the bunch that does all the work. Be one of those 20% and someone will generally notice and say "that guy/gal would be good on the board." After you've been at it a while and become trusted, THEN it's not out of line to even say sometime during standing around time to someone like a board officer "What's involved with serving on the board? What's that like? I'd be interested if openings ever come up."

Most boards are self-sustaining, meaning the current board picks their replacements, so the best way to serve is to become known and trusted to the current board members, especially the officers, who usually form the nominating committees.

A side-note - if you or anyone else reading this is a minority, that usually helps. I live in central Alabama in a majority white community, and every board I serve on seems to be SINCERELY looking for non-white members to serve. There is sometimes even a specific diversity "kicker" of some kind - for example Rotary International's Presidential Citation that clubs try to get every year has bonus points for minority members. Even without that, most of us seem to recognize a basic duty to be inclusive.

Sorry if that doesn't seem credible to some of you, but I believe it to be the truth. Granted, I'm not part of the Sons of the Confederacy and don't plan to be, but the mainstream, non-knuckle-dragging groups seem to be this way now.

Finally, supply and demand works in this arena as well as any other. The hard truth is that some boards which have more broad appeal or which tends to get your name in the society column are harder to crack. I'll probably never be in the main symphony board unless I get elected as the performing member rep (which is a shit job), because I don't intend to donate lots and lots of money to them (I'd love to for art's sake; just don't have the sums they look for in board members).

Even VOLUNTEERING for some of the society-oriented groups can be ego-bruising. A female friend tells a rather horrific story of making the mistake of volunteering for a Jr. League soup kitchen on Christmas day because she had no family in town and wanted to feel like she wasn't just wasting the day (and yes, she was a member, just hadn't been all that involved in the past). Too bad that's the day the newspaper photographers show up. Those sweet little southern belles didn't want HER help.

Back on topic - if your interest is in a) HELPING and in b) getting plugged into a community where you're new in town, just look around and ask around. It's not hard to sign up for opportunities to do actual work, and you don't need (and sometimes don't want) to be on boards to do that. If you find a niche and are consistently helpful and dependable, board offers come, and to contradict Mark Twain (or was it Groucho Marx?), my philosophy is anyone who doesn't want me as a member I don't want to join. I'm currently on 3 boards and really, it's plenty...
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:56 AM on April 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Most boards are self-sustaining, meaning the current board picks their replacements, so the best way to serve is to become known and trusted to the current board members, especially the officers, who usually form the nominating committees.

This. If you want to be on a board, get to know a few of the current board members and indicate your openness. Boards are always (or should be) looking for balance -- it's not ideal if everyone on the board is a 50-something white, Catholic, woman working in the non-profit sector, for example. At least on boards with fundraising responsibilities (which in my experience is pretty much all of them), it's good to have board members who open up different communities -- religious, social, geographic, professional, etc.

Having been on a board, I get asked all the time now to be on others. Everyone is looking, but for obvious reasons no one wants to grab random strangers off the street -- you need to be formally or informally vetted as a non-flake, non-weirdo, and have something to offer. The lazy way to do this is to just use the same people who have served on all the same boards together and come from the same social circles. The better way is for board members to be always keeping an eye on people they meet for someone who is a good fit and has something the board needs.

All that said, if you are approached, look carefully before saying yes. It's a big time commitment, and there is nothing worse than joining a dysfunctional board that has five hour meetings, people quit out of spite, and some weird guy has been board president for a decade. And there is a huge difference between joining the board of a healthy, vibrant organization, and joining the board of an organization in crisis.

tl;dr: Make friends who are on boards already, and tell them that you are interested, but look twice before jumping.
posted by Forktine at 7:20 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Incidentally I have been doing a lot of work on reforming governance recently and have been reading research in the area.

Tallus, have you researched Policy Governance for boards (sometimes called the Carver method after its founder)? I like it both as a critique of bad board practices (which are sadly the norm) and a solution based on the simple concept of boards doing board work only while leaving the rest to staff. Not as practical, though, for the smaller non-profit without paid staff in which board members are called on to do admin/fundraising/whatever.

To the OP, it's admirable that you're looking for ways to help non-profits, and many do need eager board members...but if I'm sitting on a board that heard of your request my first concern would be whether you're really committed to the org/cause or you're just out to sit on any board -- which could mean you might not be the best fit for that particular org.
posted by ecourbanist at 10:28 AM on April 10, 2011

Lots of good info at the Board Source web site.
posted by valannc at 10:44 AM on April 10, 2011

Great advice above.

Quote from Mad Men that rings true to my ears "Philanthropy is the gateway to power."
.....I would add that the gate swings both ways.
posted by lalochezia at 2:08 PM on April 10, 2011

ecourbanist, some interesting stuff. Illustrates the great divide between orgs which have the budget to have paid staff for all actual work and those which are at the level of clubs or kitchen sink projects. And it's vital that members understand the differences. Nothing worse than board members, especially the officers, trying to step in and manage the organization when there is staff. Happens all too often, especially in work-related organizations like trade associations.

On the other hand, another pet peeve is board members who just feel they're there to serve their hitch and support whatever the staff tells them to do. Jumping the track to a for-profit example, that's a good part of how something like Enron happens.

So there's a balance.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:28 PM on April 10, 2011

Rarely does a non-profit board take on people from outside their circle of known persons. Finding one in a directory and calling and saying "I'd like to be on your board" just isn't going to happen.

This really depends on the organization. If you really just want to dip your toes in the water of board work, find a couple of smaller organizations that do something you believe in and contact them - they very well might take you if you are keen and willing to work. You probably don't have a chance of getting on a larger board without connections.

But, as an Executive Director who is one of many that is tired of trying to manage the board, please first make sure you understand what being on a board is all about. It's about governance. It's not the most exciting of work for most people, and board members that come on and either resign or disengage within 6 months because it's really not as 'interesting' as they thought it would be, are a huge resource-drain.
posted by scrute at 8:15 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I chair a nonprofit board. When I was in your position - looking to serve on a board and not sure how to go about it, I approached a friend who worked at a nonprofit and told her that I'd like to serve on a board and needed help identifying an organization that fit my requirements (area of focus, stage of growth, not dysfunctional, etc). She made an introduction to the ED, and we met and discussed what I had to offer and what the org was looking for, and we decided it was a good fit. It's been great. Many orgs do recruit through the ranks, but many don't. We've had good luck with BoardMatch, which is sort of like a yearly job fair here in SF for nonprofit boards to find new members. We've also had good luck with referrals.

I think the advice you're getting here reflects the path most people take towards board service - strong alignment and history with a particular organization and then moving into a leadership role - but I (along with some of the most successful members of my board) am proof that it can be quite valuable to bring people on to the board who are strong leaders with a desire to serve and a good mission/value fit, even without specific history with the organization. Best of luck.
posted by judith at 9:17 PM on April 14, 2011

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