7 Lessons Learned From Serving On A Non-Profit Board

By Mike Maddaloni on Tuesday, December 13, 2016 at 10:00 PM with 0 comments

photo of boards on the counter at Starbucks at North and Wells, Chicago

As the year winds down, a New Year’s resolution to give back to the community is common on many people’s resolution lists. If you are considering being on the board of directors of a non-profit organization you are in good company, as it is an excellent way to contribute your talents and connections to an organization that is on the frontline of helping others in your community.

Recently I concluded a 2-year term on a non-profit board. My decision to leave was personal and not related to the organization, as I still support them and their great work. This was the first time I was on a board in this form – in the past I served on a board where it also ran the organization, a very different scenario. As a result, there are unique roles you fill.

Allow me to share some lessons learned from my most recent board experience. These hopefully will be helpful for considering being on a non-profit board, and could even be of use for those already on one.

1. Schedule time to perform board work – If you are serving on a board it is most likely not your full-time job. In addition to said job, you may have a life, family, favorite sports team, like to exercise and so on. It is easy to push off time to perform board duties for other duties of life. Unless you are a supreme being and can make time, schedule time for the board activities you have committed to.

2. Get your pitch down – Among the other activities of a board member is to be a spokesperson for the organization. When people ask you what the organization does, you better be ready to respond. Getting your pitch – or elevator speech – down is very important. Perhaps the organization may have one scripted already, and if it does that is a great place to start. But as you get to know the organization better, having a personalized pitch, in your own words, is the best way to sell someone on what they do, and why that person should contribute money to it.

3. Make a plan to fulfill your financial commitment – As much as your talents and time are important to the organization, treasures – namely money – keeps it running. Most board members make a financial commitment to contribute X dollars and raise Y dollars. This is commonly called a give/get, and it is dollar amounts that you should commit to both memory and heart. Where giving may be easy, it also may not be, and for both it is best to come up with a plan or timetable for when and how you will raise the funds to meet this vital commitment.

4. Understand the numbers – The devil is in the details, and for a non-profit board member this is the financials of the organization. Depending on the leadership of the organization, the numbers may be to varying depth and organized in ways that may mean something to the organization, but maybe not to you yourself. If there are accountants or financial people on the board, don’t solely leave the analysis of the financials to them. If you don’t understand them – ask. It could be having a 1-on-1 session with the executive director or perhaps one of those accountants on the board to better understand them. As the vitality of the organization is part of your duty, understanding the numbers and what they tell will help you know if they are on the right path or not.

5. You will learn many things as you go that you didn't expect – “Gee, I didn’t realize that” was a statement I used a lot during my Board term. A non-profit organization, no matter the size, will have many nuances, just like people do. Even great organizations who have a board-member orientation may not cover everything. Perhaps it is the depth of the history of the organization that is not fully documented, or perhaps several employees quit just after you joined the board and you may be involved in hiring them. Just like people, there are a lot layers to a lot of things, and hopefully what you discover is more positive than negative.

6. Get to know all board members – A board of directors can be a handful of people to close to 2 dozen. Each of these board members brings something to the table making them unique, and where you will know that on the periphery, as with most aspects of business, it’s good to know the person behind the board seat. To what depth you get to know other board members will likely vary based on the person – some you will get to know better than others. It’s always good to do the basic connecting – LinkedIn, other social media – and like any other networking, find areas in common or of interest to have conversations.

7. You are not there to make friends, but you just may – Where it’s good to know other board members, or the staff and other people involved with the organization, it’s not a good idea to go in assuming you will be true friends with everyone. Friendships are much deeper than that, and your role on the board may not even be appropriate for friendships with others. If you do, bonus!

Deconstructing Board Service

Being on a non-profit board of directors can be a satisfying and rewarding experience, one which should be a win-win situation between you and the organization. To achieve this takes a level of commitment and understanding, of yourself, the organization and what can be possible. Like any experience, try, evaluate, and work toward your goals. And hopefully have some fun along the way.

This is from The Hot Iron, a journal on business and technology by Mike Maddaloni.

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