5 Ways to Be the World's Greatest Non-Profit Board Member

March 14, 2019

Not many things feel as good as being asked to join a non-profit board. The idea that a group of leaders saw something in you that would execute their mission faster, better or more strategically is heady. And that’s part of the problem.  

Saying no to such an ask is really difficult for most people. Rarely does an individual really think through – or even fully inquire about – what being a board member will entail. The result is a lot of non-profit boards filled with well-intentioned people who love the organization, but aren’t necessarily moving their missions forward.  

So, the next time you are nominated to join a non-profit board, consider the following five mainstays of great board leadership. Ask yourself, am I capable of giving in this way? Do I have the heart, the time and the connections to make a positive difference, or am I just saying yes because I was asked?  

Serve Your Passion

A board position should feel like the “cheat meal” in your diet – the thing you would really indulge in if there were no consequences. In other words, you should feel really passionate about the cause you are supporting. If you are not personally moved by the stories of the constituents served by the non-profit, you are in the wrong place. If you do not feel called to make this little corner of the world better, find a different corner. There is a lot need out there, and it’s best eradicated by enthusiastic, positive people who feel connected by their very heart strings to the mission.  

Apply Your Actual Skills

Professionals, especially young ones with big career ambitions, are often advised to beef up their resumes by joining a non-profit board. While there’s nothing wrong with expanding your skill set in the hopes of moving up in the for-profit world, that can’t be the main reason to serve on a board, especially a non-profit one. Resource-strapped and often desperate for help they can’t afford, charities and other philanthropic organizations need real help from real practitioners, not aspiring ones. If you’re a financial whiz who wants to expand his marketing experience, for instance, focus first on helping the non-profit meander the upcoming changes to accounting standards. Then, explore some of the ways you can get involved in the marketing effort.

Board members absolutely should take on new challenges and stretch themselves to do more than their current skill sets may enable. You just make sure ambition doesn’t get in the way of measurable contribution.  

Be Brave with Your Network

And by brave, I mean somewhat shameless. Non-profit board members must be vocal advocates of the organizations they serve. That means injecting your cause or mission into as many conversations as possible throughout your day. (You’ll want to do so with an eye toward mutual benefit, of course. After all, that’s the way the word works). Don’t be shy about sharing your organization’s needs with bosses, strategic partners, associates and friends. Always have the top 10 things your organization needs at the front of your mind so you’re prepared when the opportunity arises. Encourage the people in your network to volunteer, donate or get involved. If you are intrinsically motivated, you don’t have to worry about annoying people. Sincerity generates a lot of grace.  

Expand Your View

Non-profits are generally collaborative and don’t mind sharing what’s working for them with others in their field or related fields. Any time you go out of town, whether for work or personal engagements, look up a similar non-profit in the area you’re visiting. Carve out time to visit, talk with the executive director or board chair and expand your knowledge base. Take what you learn home and share it fellow board members to see if what’s working elsewhere has the potential to work for you.  

Put on Your Succession Hat

Most board positions come with a term, and that’s to keep a consistent and diverse drip of time, treasure and talent resources coming into the organization. Great board members begin scouring the universe for their replacement on Day 1. As soon as you have your core group of potential successors, engage them in the organization in some way. Teach them, inspire them, and over time you will have your very own tribe of leaders who can one day surpass your own contributions to the mission.

If you are lucky enough to serve on a board today, take a look at these five recommendations and see if it’s possible to spice up your service. For those of you looking to join a board, I’m always willing to brainstorm alongside you. Connecting innovative, cause-oriented professionals to worthy non-profits in need of help is one of my very own “cheat meals.”