While every board has its own rules, roles, and conventions, a person with no previous nonprofit leadership experience has a pretty steep learning curve. So what happens once you commit to becoming a first-time nonprofit board member?
The most common reason people give for joining a nonprofit board of directors is the desire to give back. Younger people, or those seeking to transition from a for-profit career into a nonprofit one, might also pursue these positions in hopes of learning new skills or beefing up their resumé. Websites such as Bridgespan and VolunteerMatch make the job easier, listing both local and national openings and facilitating first contact.
Committing to board service is not for the wishy-washy. On paper, attending four quarterly or twelve annual board meetings might not sound like much, but a first-time nonprofit board member doesn’t just get to show up and sip coffee for half an hour. “Attending” a board meeting means coming prepared to provide meaningful oversight and leadership to your organization, so you need to keep in touch with other members and the executive director year-round.
If you have experience in a relevant field such as marketing or fundraising, expect to chair or at least contribute to that particular board committee. But whereas in the for-profit world the way forward is through decisive and quick decision-making, it doesn’t always work like that for nonprofits. You will have to listen to and give consideration to other voices – not only those of other board members but those of staff, volunteers, and constituents, too. Major changes are usually made through consensus at the end of long period of deliberation.
If you are part of a more specialized committee, such as a committee organizing an annual gala, your tasks require not just enthusiasm for the cause but a healthy dose of creativity and derring-do. How, for example, does an organization on a shoe-string budget throw a memorable cocktail hour for 300 guests and end the evening with over $30,000 raised? By mobilizing its board members, of course! Perhaps one member’s connections brought in a high-profile speaker whose star power allowed the organization to charge a high price for tickets, another used her graphic design talent to create one-of-a-kind invitations and signage, another convinced her company to donate the event space, and another personally negotiated a fabulous deal with the caterer. Most importantly, all board members arrived at the event determined to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, approachable ambassadors, inspiring trust in the organization.
In addition to a significant time commitment, a first-time nonprofit board member should expect to make donations of money – a fair amount of money, typically in the range of $3,000 to $10,000 annually. Some board members feel that their passion and expertise should be sufficient, but the reality is that if even a nonprofit’s board doesn’t consider the organization worthy of a donation, then chances are that others won’t, either. Private and corporate foundations are increasingly insistent that organizations they fund adopt and adhere to so-called “give or get” policies, which obligate their board to personally donate (“give”) or raise from acquaintances (“get”) a certain amount. Nationally, the vast majority of nonprofit boards make monetary donations and over half have some sort of giving policy in place, but unfortunately only about a quarter of boards donate at 100%.
Donating at less than 100% means that there is a giving policy but some members either did not pledge or failed to live up to their pledges. Please don’t let this happen to you, dear first-time nonprofit board member! Nonprofits can and do make exemptions, sometimes allowing in-kind gifts, sometimes drastically reducing giving requirements if someone who sits on their board represents the constituents the organization serves. It is after all unreasonable to expect, for example, a homeless mother to be able to set aside $5,000 for charitable giving. Her more modest pledge is still a valid pledge, as long as the rest of the board agrees to it. If your circumstances prevent you from giving at the level of your fellow board members, it’s your responsibility to discuss this with them up front and work out other terms. Even if you suspect that you are less financially successful than the rest, you should still consider pledging the full amount and making up the remainder through fundraising. And if you really, really are just plain allergic to the idea of board giving, consider joining a board without a “give or get” policy instead.
And if you find out along the way that you’re not cut out for it? There’s no shame in having tried it and not found a good fit. All nonprofit boards are different, in their structure, obligations, and mix of personalities. Moreover, lives get busy and priorities change. If you wish to leave a nonprofit board, it’s best to notify the board chair and the organization’s executive director as soon as possible. Be honest about why you’re leaving and offer to finish off your outstanding projects. Everyone will appreciate that you are providing useful feedback and aren’t leaving them in a lurch.
However, if you come prepared for your stint as a first-time nonprofit board member with realistic expectations and plenty of passion for serving the less fortunate, chances are that you, like many others who take on the role, will find the experience one of the most deeply rewarding and enriching of your life. Congratulations and best of luck from the Wild Fundraising team!