5 tips for joining a nonprofit board

You can make an even greater impact as a donor when you join a charity’s board, and with these tips, you’ll be prepared for success.

Nonprofit board meeting

Maybe you’ve been giving to an organization for a while and are interested in expanding your involvement by joining its board of directors. Or perhaps you have been approached by an acquaintance to join the board of their favorite charity. In fact, nearly half of Fidelity Charitable donors who volunteer do so by serving on the board of a nonprofit organization. It can be a rewarding experience—and an opportunity to have an even greater impact on a cause than you would as a donor alone.

But it’s also a significant responsibility.

“Board members are the source of authority and accountability for an organization,” said Andy Davis, director of education at BoardSource, a nonprofit that provides training and support related to organizational leadership. “It’s where the proverbial buck stops.”

Before you decide to say yay or nay to serving on a board, consider the following advice.

Understand a board member’s responsibilities—and know if you’re willing to commit to them.

“Board members should really wear three hats,” said Davis. “One is the governing hat, where they are in the boardroom making those decisions or hearing those questions on expertise. Another is the volunteer hat, making sure you’re involved in what the group does.”

“And finally, you want to be an ambassador for the organization. When you’re out in the community, when you’re giving a speech or attending a luncheon, wear the lapel pin, talk about the organization in a way that is informed and intelligent. One of the greatest resources for an organization is its reputation, and you can protect and increase that.”

You’ll need to be prepared to shoulder not only the time commitment involved in wearing these three hats, which can vary from organization to organization, but also the fiduciary and legal responsibilities of board membership, including addressing any conflicts of interest. You should understand responsibilities related to fundraising as well. Are you expected to make a particular financial contribution or solicit others for contributions?

Davis recommended that nonprofits put expectations in writing for board members, so that both parties have a record.

Do your homework on the nonprofit before taking a seat.

You would never accept a job without first researching the company, and the same should hold true when considering a board position. Whether you want to help turn an organization around or go into an organization that is largely on cruise control, that research will give you the ability to go in with open eyes.

Start by reading the nonprofit’s governance bylaws, which will explain the structure of the board, the length of member terms and how often it meets. You should also review the board meeting minutes and financial statements to discover where the organization has been and where it could be headed, Davis suggested. Is it operating in the black? If not, why? What’s happening with its programs?

Meeting minutes should reveal a discussion of strategic issues around the organization’s future and how the nonprofit can be prepared to deal with any external factors on the horizon, Davis said.

“What are they talking about?” Davis asked. “Are they talking about what color the placemats are going to be at the gala? That is not the job of the board. They should be tackling the real governance work of the organization.”

Identify the expertise you will bring to the boardroom.

Having passion for the cause a charity supports is a wonderful asset—but as a board member, you should also ask yourself and the charity how you in particular can help move the organization forward, Davis said.

If you’re an attorney, are they in need of legal guidance or are there already four other lawyers serving on the board? If the nonprofit plans to move into a new building or introduce a new public relations campaign, how can you help steer those efforts?

“Find a place where you’re going to fit in, that’s inclusive to your background and your thoughts, a place where your expertise is needed,” Davis said. “What are you going to contribute to the organization that’s not already represented there?”

Do a trial run before committing to a term on the board.

If you haven’t already been involved with projects at the organization, start small with a trial run—attend committee meetings or help plan a function the board is involved with before you decide to join.

“You can then ask yourself, ‘Is this a place I want to spend my time? Is this culture something I’m interested in?’ You’ll also be able to set up better expectations: How many hours per month are you willing to do this?” said Davis.

In addition, the organization will value the chance to see your skills in action, so you both can decide whether—and how—you can meaningfully help direct the charity’s mission.

Listen and learn before acting.

Even if you’ve been involved with an organization for many years, you’ll always be surprised by what you learn as you take on a governance role. That’s why it can be helpful to spend some time listening first before proposing new ideas.

“Ask questions at first, instead of making statements,” Davis said. “You’ll want to start out by saying, ‘Have we thought about this before?’ instead of saying, ‘You should do this.’”

And also make sure you’re keeping your involvement at the right level. “Your job is to govern, not to manage,” Davis said. “It’s the board’s responsibility to say, ‘Hey, this program’s not performing at the level we want. We need to sunset it or maybe divert more resources into it.’ But let the CEO manage the day-to-day work of getting that done. You’re there to think strategically.”

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