Nonprofit Board Membership: A Primer

If you’re looking for creative ways to “give back” to your community or society at large, consider joining a nonprofit board of directors. But where do you begin?

Assess your passions
“Passion for mission” is the most important criterion when recruiting board members.1 Are you an animal lover or concerned about children’s health? Do you currently support youth athletics, art, education, music, religion, or eldercare? Would you prefer to work with organizations whose impacts are felt on a local, regional, national, or international level?

Identify your areas of interest and geographical scope, then investigate potential opportunities. The resources at BoardSource may help you in your search.

Evaluate your contribution potential
Board membership generally requires commitments of time, effort, and money. Be sure you fully understand these commitments and are willing to devote what’s necessary to fulfill your obligations.

Time: Board members generally agree to serve for multi-year terms, usually with limitations. (The most common term structure is two consecutive three-year terms.2) Meetings typically occur several times throughout the year, in person and/or via conference call. In-between regular meetings, committee work can consume additional time.

Effort: What professional skills do you bring to the table? Nonprofits often need assistance in the areas of financial management, legal counsel, marketing, fundraising, strategy, and operations, and often seek board members who can contribute these and other specific skill sets.

Money: Board members are generally expected to contribute their own money and are often asked to help solicit donations during fundraising drives. In addition, most board members are not reimbursed for expenses, so if you’re required to travel, you will have to cover your own (often tax-deductible) costs.

Review your legal responsibilities
All board members carry some level of “fiduciary responsibility,” or legal responsibility for financial oversight. Although you don’t need to be a certified public accountant or investment manager (most boards have at least one experienced professional to advise on the most complex accounting, tax, and finance issues), you need at least a fundamental ability to interpret financial statements.

State nonprofit governance laws vary, so be sure to inquire about fiduciary responsibility as it relates to your target organization(s). You might also ask about directors and officers insurance, which helps protect board members in the event of a lawsuit.

Understand the recruitment process
Generally, potential board members are invited to join. They will typically undergo a series of two-way interviews with senior organizational management and other board members. These interviews are the perfect opportunity not only to evaluate the rate of success of the organization in pursuing its mission but also to gauge the culture of the organization and its board; to assess the leadership abilities of the executive staff members, board, and committee chairs; and to carefully review the board’s by-laws, which govern the responsibilities of the board members and the frameworks under which they operate and make decisions.

Test the waters
Many nonprofits allow people to serve on committees without the multi-year commitment of board membership. For this reason, committee work might be an ideal way to gain valuable insight into the inner workings of an organization and build relationships among senior staff and board members before making the commitment to join a board.