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How to Serve on a Nonprofit Board

Serving on a board is about more than just making business connections—it’s real work. Here’s how to ensure your time on a board is productive and fulfilling.

Adrienne Arsht serves as a vice chair of New York City's Lincoln Center. Photo by Shutterstock.com

As a young lawyer at Phoenix-based law firm Brown & Bain in the early 1980s, Tim Delaney devised what he believed was a brilliant strategy for generating more revenue: He would join the local chamber of commerce on behalf of the firm to gain new clients. Brown & Bain backed his seemingly altruistic initiative, though one of the firm’s name partners, Randy Bain, offered a word of advice. “When you get involved in the community,” Bain said as he gave Delaney the check for membership dues, “you need to make sure you’re doing it because you want to make a difference, not because you’re just trying to bring in new business.” Embarrassed at the time, Delaney now admits that he quickly convinced himself that he was indeed trying to be a community leader.

“It was not fulfilling,” he recalls. Finding the chamber’s mission limited and that he was one of many who had joined only for business development, his interest waned. He stopped attending meetings after six months and let the membership lapse.

Nonprofits are where individuals come together to solve a community problem, so every board member needs to have alignment with the organization’s mission and expectations.

Delaney’s idea wasn’t inherently inappropriate—serving on a nonprofit board can be a great way to develop leadership skills, enhance your community and business network and open the doors to new social opportunities. But he recently shared that his approach was all wrong.

Today, following a law career that includes a stint as chief deputy attorney general of Arizona as well as considerable nonprofit work, Delaney is CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that is the largest network of charitable nonprofits in the country. “Nonprofits are where individuals come together to solve a community problem,” he says, “so every board member needs to have alignment with the organization’s mission and expectations.”

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Heading into nonprofit board service can be incredibly rewarding personally and professionally. But having the wrong mindset can at best be a disappointment; at worst, it’s a detriment to the organization you’re trying to help. Here are a few things to consider when serving on a nonprofit board.

FIND A PURPOSE

Adrienne Arsht, nonprofit

As executive vice chair of the Atlantic Council, Adrienne Arsht most recently gave a $25 million gift to launch the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center focused on translating the concept of resilience into actions and impact. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Council

“I don’t think anything, with rare exceptions, can be accomplished without passion behind it,” says philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, whose extensive board service includes roles as vice chair of Lincoln Center in New York and executive vice chair of the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “You should want to go on a board because that’s where your passion leads.”

In other words, love the cause. At the end of the day, nonprofit board service is volunteer work. Like a corporate board, a nonprofit board guides and advises the leadership of an organization. And as with most philanthropy, if you don’t feel a personal connection to the mission of an organization, sitting on its board probably won’t feel very rewarding—it may even seem onerous.

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Before joining a board, Delaney recommends asking about the expectations of its members. The bylaws of most nonprofit boards set attendance requirements for its meetings and events, as well as for committee and fundraising participation. “If you see up front that it will be a bad alignment, it’s best for both parties for you to say, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’” he says.

TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN

Ann Ramsay-Jenkins, nonprofit

Ann Ramsay-Jenkins’ professional experience includes working in the Executive Office of the President on drug abuse prevention—a knowledge set that has proven invaluable to the boards she has served on, such as the College Success Foundation and University of Washington Medicine. Photo courtesy of the College Success Foundation

Whether you were invited to join or campaigned for a board seat, plan on staying for the long haul. “The organization needs to get to know you better, and you need to get to know it,” says Seattle philanthropist Ann Ramsay-Jenkins. “It’s a time when you can be a resource if the organization knows how to use you well. But it’s a mutual education.”

A thoughtful understanding of the committees and their work is important for someone to be a good fit.

In addition to serving on multiple boards throughout her career—from University of Washington Medicine and the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle to the Ogunquit Playhouse and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in her native Maine—Ramsay-Jenkins has interviewed board candidates as chair of the College Success Foundation, an educational nonprofit she cofounded in 2000. “Depending on the organization, there are different committees of the board. A thoughtful understanding of the committees and their work is important for someone to be a good fit,” she says.

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Board members should also become familiar with the organization’s bylaws and uphold ethical standards. Organizations such as the National Council of Nonprofits and BoardSource provide tools and materials to develop your knowledge of being a good steward. Ultimately, working in the team atmosphere of a board should sharpen your skills in diplomacy, decision-making and conflict resolution.

But if you don’t have the time to devote to the nonprofit, or your circumstances change, don’t be ashamed to step down. “People are afraid of doing that for fear they will be looked on negatively,” Delaney says, “but most boards celebrate people who have that sort of personal courage and will quickly ask them to come back when their schedule permits.”

MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING

A nonprofit board seat, particularly at cultural organizations, generally comes with a financial commitment. A board member may be expected to bring in a specific amount of money, either by writing a check or helping to raise those funds through business associates or corporate support. But a large checkbook works best in conjunction with big-picture wisdom.

“Instead of calling up an organization and saying, ‘I’m wealthy and I can make a contribution,’ individuals need to do their homework to determine where they’re going to be the most comfortable if and when they decide to become involved,” says John Graham, CEO of the American Society of Association Executives. “If someone has an idea, and they have the money to say, ‘Let’s try an experiment and see what kind of impact we can have,’ there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s someone who’s trying to work within the systems of the organization.”

It provides an individual with so much opportunity to be bigger than oneself.

Adrienne Arsht took that strategic approach when she joined the Atlantic Council in 2014. She felt there was a need for a Latin America-focused think tank and proposed making a $5 million gift to establish it. “I was introduced to [Atlantic Council president] Fred Kempe, and said, ‘This is what I really care about,’” she remembers. “He talked to his board and said, ‘Yes, we want to do that.’” Five years later, the center is one of the leading authorities on issues in the Americas and works regularly with the U.S. State Department on matters in the region. And Arsht’s commitment to the Atlantic Council has only deepened, leading to the creation of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center—another think tank she backed with $30 millionas well as her executive vice chair role in the organization.

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That strengthening of ties to the community and an organization is what people in the nonprofit sector say is most addictive about board service. “For anyone who hasn’t done this before, it’s a door to a new world of people and friends to meet,” Ramsay-Jenkins says. “It provides an individual with so much opportunity to be bigger than oneself. And it’s fun.”

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