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Everything You Need To Know About Being On A Nonprofit Board

Everything You Need To Know About Being On A Nonprofit Board

By Pauline Millard, Ellevate Network Content Strategist

Ellevate members are passionate about supporting nonprofits. While the community helps many causes, we found that 30% support girls education, 23% donate regularly and 11% actively mentor young professionals. Animal rights, the environment and local community groups are also heavily supported.

Being able to say you’re on a nonprofit board sounds impressive, but it also comes with commitment. We asked a few Ellevate Network members about the ins and out of being on a nonprofit board, and what you need to know before you sit down at your first meeting.

First Of All, Why Are You Doing This?

Anne Bahr Thompson, who has been on several nonprofit boards and currently sits on the board of The New York Junior League, says that before you do anything, you need to ask yourself why you want to be on a board. Is it a cause you care about? Is it for business purposes? Are you skills needed?

There’s no shame in joining a board for the purposes of making business connections. It’s just another form of networking. You may not get to meet some of these people otherwise. Working on the board may forge more meaningful connections than if you met someone elsewhere.

It’s also a great way to meet different kinds of people. Deanna Angello is on the board of The Association For Frontotemporal Degeneration. Frontotemporal Degeneration is a form of dementia that affects the front part of the brain and tends to hit people in their 40s and 50s, when they’re in their prime. Deanna’s professional background is in corporate America – specifically the pharmaceutical industry -- but many of the people on her board come from academia and the scientific community.

Are Your Skills Needed?

Boards are always in need of people with legal and finance backgrounds. But they also need people who bring other skills, like marketing, human resources, tech and development. It’s important to know what piece of the puzzle you would fill for them.

Ellevate President, Kristy Wallace, is involved in multiple boards including Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI) and the Girls Scouts of Greater New York Leadership Advisory Board. Kristy’s sales background has come in handy with fundraising efforts.

“When looking for the best board fit make sure to ask questions about the current skills make-up of the board and where there are gaps that align with your skill set. Also use this as an opportunity to grow your skill set. Join committees that are of interest and learn from those with more expertise than you.”

Deanna uses her deep knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry to help the researches connect to pharmaceutical companies and biotechs. It’s an expertise the organization needed, and it’s a meaningful way for her to leverage her business background.

Are There Other Options?

Just because you’re passionate about a cause doesn’t mean you have to go full throttle and be on the board. Sometimes you can be better utilized as a volunteer, heading up events and committees. Sometimes an advisory role is a better fit for your lifestyle. Learn as much as you can about the organization and try to get some hands-on experience with it.

Know The Details of the Give/Get

When you join a board you will be expected to give or get a certain amount of money for the organization. It’s important to know exactly how much that is and what the consequences are if for some reason you can’t make it. Anne says that you shouldn’t join a board if you can’t make the financial commitment, or have solid connections of people who could make a donation.

“Fewer nonprofit boards find appeal with a board member who does not personally donate,” says Ellevate member Karen Mildenhall. She’s sat on several boards including the Grand Canyon chapter of The Red Cross. Karen says that it’s a demonstration that you have a personal commitment to the nonprofit, in addition to soliciting donations.

“If you do not want to donate to the organization, you likely do not have skin in the game for the success of their mission,” Karen said.

What Kind Of A Board It Is?

In an ideal world, a nonprofit board focuses on the long-term and strategic goals of the organization, and not the day-to-day, operational issues. If you can, try to sit in on a board meeting or two to get a better idea of the kind of work it does and if people follow through on their commitments.

There Are Legal Angles To Consider

What risks would you be taking on as a board member? Karen says that it’s important to be crystal clear and to understand the organization’s risk, how those risks are managed and how you could be brought into a dispute as a board member.

Karen says that the nonprofit should provide every board member with an indemnification agreement saying, in essence, that you are not liable for the debts and liabilities of the organization and they will defend and protect you if allegations arise. This agreement should be backed-up with a director’s and officer’s insurance policy to indemnify and defend board members if they are individually brought into a legal or civil dispute.

Consider The Time Commitment

Being on a nonprofit board often comes with a lot more than just board meetings. Every state has different laws, but if you’re on a board you may be required to sit on other committees, such as finance or development. Take into account fundraisers, committee meeting prep work, donor meetings, and other responsibilities. Board roles usually come with descriptions, so it’s important to fully understand expectations.

Also understand the specifics about how and where the board meets. Can you phone in? Is there travel involved? Deanna said that her board meets only four times a year, but once a year it’s in Philadelphia and another time it’s usually at a research center, such as the Mayo Clinic. Other meetings are done over the phone.

Sometimes A Small Board Is A Great Fit

The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration is smaller than other groups that support dementia, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, but watching it grow has given Deanna a lot of personal satisfaction. Since the nonprofit supports a disease, Deanna said a lot of people on the board have a personal motivation to help it succeed.

Depending on your age and where you are in life, sometimes you can have a bigger impact on a smaller board. In addition to working on a cause she cares about, Deanna said it’s exciting to advance the care and work towards a cure for an otherwise incurable disease. She wouldn’t be able to do this on any of the larger, marquee name nonprofits.

“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction to be part of something and taking it to the next level,” she said. “But when you’re on a board, consider that since you’re not being paid for the work you do, it should be a cause you’re really passionate about.”


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook:

Community Discussion

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Jo Burkholder

If you do not have the financial means or financial connections to be a big donor/fundraiser for an organization, you may be able to gain experience through organizations that ask or substitute a service commitment for their members. I currently sit on a board for a performing arts group for whom I am providing research and script writing. A former board member has been very active in set design and construction, another in making costumes and props. - in kind service with a significant value. Someone who could step up as our volunteer coordinator - an unpaid role - would also provide a valuable service to the organization whether or not they had a financial one to make. Either way, it is a question of having some ski in the game of helping the organization succeed.

October 18, 2019

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