Antioch University teaching faculty member and director of the online MA in Non-Profit Management Department David Norgard has been working in nonprofits for his entire career, and in that time, he’s become an expert on nonprofit board governance. Even after first graduating from school, he says, he “saw early on how boards have an extraordinary influence on an organization, and yet they sometimes can be dysfunctional, and at other times, they can be extraordinarily helpful.”
Because boards of directors often operate in the background of an organization, they are rarely the focus of attention, but they are vital to the mission of their nonprofit. “We often think about nonprofits in terms of having a great staff or executive director, a strong donor list, or a good volunteer corps,” says Norgard, “But what’s not obvious is, ‘do they have a well-functioning board?’”
If you’ve recently been invited to join a board, there are several things to consider before you agree or turn down the offer. Though the experience can be tremendously rewarding for both the board member and the organization, it is a very real commitment and one that should not be entered into lightly. Below, Norgard offers some advice for those deciding whether to join a board.
Understand What Skills a Board Might Need
Because a nonprofit is mission-based, board members are beholden to that mission and to doing some good for their community in an effective way. Depending on the size and mission of a nonprofit, its board may need different skills.
Antioch itself is representative of many large nonprofits, says Norgard. “As would be prudent, the Antioch board has a number of people from hither and yon across the country. It includes people who have a higher education background, and also the other array of skills that are common: backgrounds in finance and law.” These backgrounds are especially common on boards, even small ones, because every nonprofit comes across legal issues, even those as mundane as understanding basic contracts, and every organization has a budget and financial issues they must work through.
In addition to legal and financial skills, nonprofit boards also benefit from having other skills represented. A board member who has a background in fundraising can bring real vitality to a board, says Norgard. “If an organization relies substantially on donated income, then the more expertise a board has in this area, the better.” Although it isn’t always associated with nonprofits, having a marketing expert on the board can often be extremely helpful, as they are able to help make that nonprofit more visible to a wider audience. Likewise, especially for larger nonprofits, having someone with human resource skills can be very important for ensuring compliance to ethical standards.
Perhaps most importantly, on every nonprofit, there should be a member of the board that has expertise in the area the board serves. This truly reflects on the nonprofit’s mission, and so having someone in that role is vital. For example, an art museum will want an artist or art historian to sit on their board, while a counseling program will want to retain someone with a background in mental health.
Consider Why You Want to Join a Board
There are many reasons to join a board, and all of them are valid. Professor Norgard outlines some of those key reasons below:
- Gaining Experience. Service on a board is something that people typically do put on a resume, and it really does count for something, because it shows that an organization trusts this person. Especially for younger people and those who are at a career development stage, this can be a very appealing way to gain experience and build their resume.
- Social Networking. To put it very simply, nonprofit boards are a social network that can be a place to meet new people and make new friends. If someone is new to the community but has this deep connection to the homeless shelter down the street, it’s a great way to get to know one’s own community and the people in it. While this might sound a bit shallow, it’s actually a very significant reason for many board members.
- Business Networking. This is a little less on the emotional side and perhaps more calculating, but it’s not illegitimate. There is real networking that tends to happen when someone is based at a high level in a community nonprofit. People meet others in the community and make connections that will serve them well.
- Expanding Skill Sets. Working on a board can help people gain real experience and a deeper knowledge base for something they are contemplating more significantly. For example, folks will sometimes volunteer at a school if they are thinking of pursuing education as a career.
- Religious Beliefs. There are often folks across the U.S. who have a religious or philosophical rationale or motivation for volunteering. It accords with the religious teaching that they adhere to, and they want to make themselves useful to their fellow human beings in some way. This actually accounts for quite a lot of board members’ volunteerism.
Many board members have more than one of the above motives, and there’s truly no “bad” reason to join a board. However, before agreeing to join a board, you should understand what you are hoping to gain or why you want to participate, so you can fully understand your motives and role.
Consider Why the Organization Wants You to Join
Additionally, you will also want to think over the responsibilities and expectations that are required before you make a decision. First, Norgard recommends joining the board of only nonprofits about which you truly feel passionate. “I’ve been asked to serve on boards from time to time, where I think the cause is a good one and that the organization is honorable and stable, but they don’t serve my particular passion. In these cases, I’ve learned to say ‘no,’” he says. “Board terms are often three or four years long, and that can feel like a long time if you don’t particularly care about it.” There are many ways to support an organization that involve less bandwidth than sitting on their board, so it’s worth trying those avenues before making a commitment to serve on the board.
Most nonprofits expect a significant time and financial commitment from their board members. Norgard advises that people only agree to serve on a board if they are capable of making—and happy to make—both kinds of commitment. It is important to ask for clarity on these issues when you are approached to join a board, and, going back to the question of passion, Norgard recommends agreeing only if you are certain you can make the financial and volunteer commitment being asked. “If you don’t feel prepared to make a commitment of some significance on both fronts,” Norgard says,” then I’d say it’s not the right time.”
Every nonprofit has an organizational lifecycle with stages of growth and expansion, stages of decline, and stages of instability. Knowing where your organization is when you are asked to join the board should be key to your decision. “The commitment feels really different, and the nature of the skills required are different, from one stage of the lifecycle to another,” says Professor Norgard. “For example, the first growth of a nonprofit has a lot of excitement, but for an agency in a period of decline, it may take a person who is more seasoned in organizational life to turn things around. You might not want that to be your first board experience.”
And finally, you’ll want to ask your nonprofit—and yourself—what they are interested in about you personally. If you’re an accountant who is looking to break into a new field, you may find that the nonprofit is primarily interested in your accounting skills and that it may be difficult for you to expand your horizons and do something different. There’s nothing wrong with these expectations, but it’s vital to be aware of them going in and to be sure that the position will fit your emotional needs.
So, should you join that board when you receive an invitation? Norgard says the decision is for you to make personally. “Serving on a board of directors can be an enormously rewarding experience, professionally, intellectually, and emotionally. It’s also demanding because you are functioning as a leader of the organization, even if you are somewhat in the background.” That said, it’s also clear that Norgard sees this service as deeply important. “I do really want to encourage people who have a little extra time and discretionary income, who want to make the pledge,” he says. “Boards govern the nonprofits of our country, and it’s the nonprofits who are making the pivotal difference in our country toward a more just economic and creative society.”