What You Should Know Before Joining a Nonprofit Board

what to know before you join the board

This edited guest post first appeared in Aespire's Aspirations blog. 

Ten years ago, I received a call asking, "Would you be interested in joining our board?" It would have been helpful to have a list of questions to ask current board members and the executive director before I began this journey.

Now as I prepare to exit the board, I often jokingly remind our executive director that she told me, "We only want you for your brain." I chuckle, because not only have I served in executive roles and in governance and oversight, I've committed my personal and business resources to the organization through financial and pro bono creative services.

I didn't ask to be considered for the board; I wasn't looking to join one. I don't know if the executive director knew exactly who she would be getting by asking, or why the current board thought I would be a good fit.

In fact, I was skeptical and had extended conversations with the board president and the Executive Director about what was expected and why they thought I was a good candidate.

Looking back, I wonder if I would still be invited. We're all ten years older, ten years the wiser (at least I prefer to think I am; this is where I open myself up to wisecracks from my closest friends). But am I the ideal board member? Now that we're all wiser and I'm exiting the board, whom should we be looking for to replace me and ensure the organization's future success?

Are you in a similar situation? What qualities and characteristics should you look for in an ideal board member?

The Chief Operating Officer's Perspective

Zubin Segal, Chief Operations Officer of the Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations, notes:

"We are actively looking to recruit board members that are reflective of the Texas nonprofit sector. Some descriptive words that come to mind: tech-savvy, diverse (in culture, professional background, age, and vision); flexible, and visionary."

The Designer’s Perspective

These last ten years of service have been an exceptional experience for me. Why, I wonder, has it been so positive?

The members of the boards I serve on embody character and leadership qualities that put the organization's interests ahead of their own as advocates and ambassadors. I find they model leadership, value relationships, and have a technical awareness within their own sphere of expertise, and as it relates to advancing the mission of the organization.

These characteristics shine through servant leadership, outside perspective, and good cultural fit with the board and the organization. What should you look for?

A Servant Leadership Mindset

A servant leader will accept a position where they are intent on advancing the organization's mission, not their own agenda. A servant leader will understand that her motivations (heart), head (values and beliefs), hands (actions), and habits (personal discipline) contribute to her service. (Read Ken Blanchard's Lead Like Jesus for a fuller understanding of these four characteristics.)

Perspective from Outside the Bottle

Boards should operate as wise counsel to the leadership of a nonprofit. It's critical to have relationships, experience, viewpoints, and perspectives that bring a variety of wisdom, insight, and strategic thinking to their role.

Janna Finch, researcher with Software Advice, a company that provides online reviews for nonprofit technology, states, "It's generally good to have a board that includes members with a variety of professional backgrounds. For example, if it is comprised of a large number of lawyers, a nonprofit might look for someone with different expertise to bring another perspective to meetings."

Individuals who fit the culture

The creative collaboration between a diverse mix of directors is what creates positive direction and impact. Seek out individuals who will check their ego and agendas at the door, and who have a proven record of collaboration and cooperation.

What does the research show?

What do current board members and nonprofit professionals say are the most important factors to consider?

It's clear that personal fulfillment and a clear understanding of expectations matter. What is surprising is the view on technology.

A recent study of 1,500 nonprofit professionals and board members identified attributes to consider when selecting board members. Some of the key findings include:

  • 55% indicated that knowledge of specialized software is essential.
  • 50% said establishing clear expectations around involvement is a top consideration.
  • 50% cite personal fulfillment as a key consideration for nonprofit service.
  • 24% said that fundraising experience has the greatest impact on a board member’s success.
Top benefits of board service pie chart

Making the case for a tech-savvy board

What's more critical for a board, leadership gifts or technical literacy? If we're focused on impact, leadership experience should be a primary consideration. Tech savviness is a valuable asset for any board, but a strong board requires leaders first, technical experts second. According to Finch:

"One of the most interesting takeaways is that while nonprofits are adopting new technology in greater numbers — as well as actively seeking more tech-savvy board members — previous leadership experience can best predict how greatly a person's board service will positively impact the organization. In addition, outcomes, analytics and impact measurement are becoming more important in conversations about a nonprofit effectiveness, so technical literacy is very valuable. Still, an individual’s personal sense of commitment and willingness to advocate outweighs the necessity of strong technical experience."

Pie chart: Most important tech skills for board members

The ideal board isn't made up of either leaders or tech-savvy members, but a combination of individuals who can leverage their leadership skills, relationships, and technical expertise to advance the mission and advocate for the cause the board represents.

“What should I know before joining a board?”

Set positive expectations to avoid negative experiences:

  • Ask, “How much will I have to give?" One factor that can contribute to a negative board experience is a member's misunderstanding about financial expectations. Be clear from the start about how much personal financial contribution is expected of you as a board member (the "give") as well as how much you are expected to raise for it (the "get").
     
  • Ask, “What will be expected of me?” Read the board handbook and policies available. Talk with current board members to understand what their experience has been.

Understand what motivates your own and other board members. Personal values and personal experience are often reasons why board service is meaningful, and why an individual will join a particular board. Passion is meaningful, but motivation will drive those who are believers in your cause after the flame of passion has grown dim. Seek out individuals who have the desire to be advocates, ambassadors, and champions. Each role serves a different purpose that helps draw supporters into the story of your organization.

How do you find the ideal board members?

  • Tap into your current board's personal network. Ask each board member for one name of a trusted business associate or community member who has affinity for your cause.
     
  • Ask your exiting board members whom they would recommend to fill their empty chair.
     
  • Recruit from your volunteers. Who is active and influential?
     
  • Donors — Consider those who have invested in your organization, and may be willing to invest time and leadership resources.
     
  • Local or regional leadership organizations, networks, and organizations that focus on connecting and developing volunteers and board members with nonprofits.

What's your board experience been like? Has it changed your life? Has it had impact on others and the causes you support? Tell us in the Comments below.

Brian Sooy

BRIAN SOOY is president and design director of Aespire, an Ohio-based consulting firm. Brian has more than 30 years of experience in marketing, design, custom font and type design and interactive media. He serves on the board of directors of the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio, and currently serves on the executive committee as Member at Large.

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