Giving money and volunteering hours to organizations you care passionately about—and whose mission you strongly believe in—can be incredibly rewarding. That said, you may still have that nagging feeling that you could be doing more—something more strategic that would better leverage your unique skills and energy.
In my experience, serving as a board member allows you to do just that.
I’ve been on several nonprofit boards over the years, including the national board of the Girl Scouts, the regional board of the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, and advisory boards of both Feminist.com and the OpEd Project.
There are literally millions of nonprofit organizations out there, so you don’t need to be Sheryl Sandberg to become a board member. Just be prepared to put some serious effort into finding the right fit.
As a board member your overall duty is to understand and help advance the mission of the organization you represent—in ways ranging from strategy to operations to oversight.
You may also be required to make a pre-agreed board contribution (i.e. funds you agree to donate to the organization, often referred to as the “board ask”).
Nonprofit board duties can vary widely: Some boards look heavily to their members to help with development (code for raising money!). Other boards are looking for members who have very specific skills—for example, someone with a strong financial background to sit on their finance committee or someone with strong marketing and branding experience to help with the marketing committee. Whatever your specialist area—investment, audit, fundraising, PR, events, or ethics—it’s a good bet your expertise will come in handy somewhere.
Generally, when you are a board member, you attend all full board meetings AND actively participate in one or two sub-committees. That’s why you need to choose an organization you’re really passionate about, making it a labor of love—the meetings can be a grind, otherwise.
During my stints as a board member I was able to give back to the community and support causes I believed in—while sharpening my leadership and business skills.
It’s a great feeling to use your skills from your day job to help a nonprofit solve a problem, discover a new area of opportunity, and further its overarching mission.
he relationships you make with your fellow board members can also be satisfying in so many ways—you learn from them professionally and personally, you are meeting new people and getting exposed to new networks.
If you’re already volunteering for or donating to an organization close to your heart, you may already know the executive leadership, and decide to reach out to them directly. Another route is to search through professional networking sites or elsewhere online for nonprofits seeking board members.
GuideStar is a comprehensive database of 1.8 million IRS-recognized, tax-exempt organizations.1 It allows you to search by location, mission area or name.
Some other sites that can help you connect with a nonprofit whose mission you really care about: BoardnetUSA, VolunteerMatch and Idealist.
Asking the right questions is crucial, so I put together a quick-fire list of questions you should always ask before joining a nonprofit board:
• What’s the financial “ask”? Are you expected to contribute a specific dollar amount yourself, raise a target sum from outside sources, both or neither?
• How much time are you expected to commit? How often does the board and each sub-committee meet, and for how long? What other annual events are you expected to attend? You don’t want to agree to a time commitment you can’t honor.
• Which sub-committee best suits your skills and interests? Remember, a board may have several committees. Find the one that’s right for you.
• Who will your fellow board members be? Make sure there’s a personality fit before joining—get to know the rest of the board, if you can. Or at least ask some pointed questions about group camaraderie and culture during the decision-making stage. When you’re donating your time and skills (rather than being paid for them), your tolerance for certain behaviors may not be as high!
• Do they share the executive director’s vision? Inquire about the relationship between the board and the ED and staff. I’ve experienced situations where board members and ED had a different vision for the nonprofit, which can lead to creative breakthroughs—or just a stressful environment.
• What were the experiences of prior board members? Track them down and ask!
• How financially stable is the organization? Ask about current challenges, goals and any past issues previous boards have grappled with. This will give a fuller sense of the mission you’ll fulfill.
• Does the board carry insurance (liability/errors and omissions) for members?
In your regular job it can be hard to actually see the fruits of your labor—you’re a piece of such a large puzzle—whereas nonprofit board work can yield more satisfying and meaningful results. So good luck with your search—it will be worth it!
Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America has sponsored Ask the Expert posts for informational purposes only. Many of the experts are unaffiliated with Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, College Retirement Equities Fund, and their affiliates and subsidiaries (collectively TIAA), and TIAA makes no representations regarding the accuracy or completeness of any information on the posts or otherwise made available by the experts. Statements of external featured experts are solely their own and are not endorsed or recommended by TIAA.
TIAA is not responsible for the content or privacy policies of third-party sites to which you may link.
The TIAA group of companies does not offer tax or legal advice. You should consult an independent tax or legal advisor for advice based on your own particular circumstances.
This material is for informational or educational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice under ERISA. This material does not take into account any specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Investment decisions should be made based on the investor’s own objectives and circumstances.
Experts may not have medical or scientific training. Any information related to physical or emotional health is not intended to be used in place of a consultation with a physician.
TIAA is not responsible for the statements of community members. We may link to posts made by community members only to direct you to topics that may be of interest to you. This does not mean that we agree with the opinions of these community members. Their statements are solely their own and are not endorsed or recommended by TIAA.