A Road Map for Effectively Serving on Non-Profit Boards

Over my 20+ years in business, I have had the good fortune to serve on a number of non-profit boards and am grateful for the enriching experiences, people I have met and worthy causes I have served.  One of the benefits I’ve gleaned is how to effectively serve on a non-profit board.  In my earlier days, I wasn’t aware there was a right and wrong to it. This article seeks to cull this information into an easy-to-follow road map that will hopefully enrich your board service experience and help add value to the organizations you serve.

“Why should I serve on this non-profit board?”  It’s the fundamental question we should ask ourselves before accepting a board position.  Our time is stretched thin and free minutes are precious, so evaluate any extra time commitments with thoughtful discernment.  I recommend reviewing the following questions as part of the evaluation process:

  • What is the reputation of the organization in the community?  Is the leadership team effective?  Can I speak with references and existing board members?
  • How often does the board meet and what is the time commitment required of board members?
  • Does the board have D&O (Directors and Officers) insurance?
  • What will I have to sacrifice personally and professionally in order to give this organization what it requires of me?
  • Do my passions and interests align with the mission of the organization?
  • Will my skills and experiences help me be effective on the board?
  • Am I willing to champion the cause of this organization to my network and potentially ask for donations?
  • Is there a minimum personal donation required of board members?

In my first board role more than 15 years ago, I was so excited to be invited that I didn’t ask many questions.  Even though the mission of the organization aligned with my passions and interests, I quickly learned that the non-profit had a dysfunctional leadership team, a poor reputation in the community and they desperately needed me to help them raise money.  It was a painful lesson for me, but I learned from it.

Making a Difference or Padding a Resume

Let’s be honest here.  Ask yourself if your desire to serve on a non-profit board is to truly make a difference or build your resume.  I have worked alongside both.  The people who have a heart for service add significant value and find their experience rewarding.  People wanting to serve for the sake of appearances can have a negative effect on the organization by not contributing at the expected level and taking the seat of someone who is willing to be active.

Innovative Ways to Add Value

Did you know there are other ways to help the organizations you are serving besides writing a big check?  While individual contributions are helpful, we may not always be in a position to provide significant personal resources.  I have helped develop alternative ways to provide value to the non-profits I have served.  Here are a few proven ideas:

  • The small gathering.  Host a small, intimate gathering in your office or at a local restaurant of other business leaders to hear a guest speaker present on a relevant topic.  This can be an author, recognized business leader or a professional service provider offering their views on the market or trends.  Invite the head of your non-profit organization and make introductions.  Provide a meal in a relaxed setting and invite people who have a heart for giving back.  This approach creates more awareness in the business community for the non-profit, attracts potential volunteers for the organization’s projects and draws potential donors.
  • The Forum concept.  A modification of the above idea, but think bigger.  Every six months my firm hosts a Bell Oaks Forum, usually in partnership with a local university at one of their facilities.  We invite 100-150 senior business leaders to hear someone of interest present on a relevant topic.  We usually select a non-profit our firm supports as a “Community Sponsor,” place their logo and information in our marketing materials and recognize them at the Forum.  We invite the organization’s leader to say a few words and offer a place for them to distribute marketing information.  The events are free and we invest in coffee and a light breakfast for the attendees.  Everyone involved—the speaker, attendees, presenting organization and non-profit—benefits.
  • Gifts that matter. Every Christmas, many of us give generously to our clients and business colleagues to whom we wish to show our appreciation.  Next year, instead of giving the overstuffed gift basket or box of cookies, make a donation on their behalf to your favorite non-profit.  Each year our firm makes a donation to our favorite causes in the name of clients and friends; the response has been wonderful and we are able to help in a meaningful way the causes we support throughout the year.
  • Open your network.  Actively introduce key business leaders and other valuable resources to the leaders of the non-profits you serve.  If you are aware of its organizational needs, you may be able to get friends to donate their skills and professional services pro-bono which is of enormous value.  These coffee and lunch meetings you facilitate can often produce a lot of positive results for both parties and it is as simple as sending an introductory email.
  • Promote, promote, promote.  Use email and social media to promote the non-profits you serve.  LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter updates on upcoming events for your non-profits can help raise their profile in the community.  Send updates to your network when the organization is in the news or if any of the leadership is quoted.  This is incredibly valuable and costs a minimal investment of time.

Things to Avoid

As much as this article is about things to do, I also want to address what to avoid when serving on a non-profit board.  Here are few observations and experiences:

  • Don’t over commit.  Be prudent when volunteering for a board or committee assignment.
  • Don’t be impatient.  Non-profits don’t typically run like our companies and they are not supposed to.  Process, deadlines and growing revenue can be alien concepts.
  • Don’t forget to “experience” what the non-profit is all about.  Don’t serve on a board and fail to get personally involved in their mission.  Get out in the field and help!  You can’t sell what you haven’t experienced firsthand.
  • Don’t ignore the need to build collaborative friendships on the board.  You will be relying on each other in the future to get things done, so meet your fellow board members.  I have made some incredible friendships through my board service.

I am a better person because I give time to serve non-profits in our community.  As I have gotten older, I’m keenly aware of what causes I am passionate about and what I have to offer.  My hope is that this road map will help you maximize your own board experiences and make a meaningful difference in the community.  We have much to offer, these organizations need our help…let’s get started.


Randy Hain, Senior Editor for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the author of The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work which was recently released by Liguori Publications. ”The Catholic Briefcase” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble online and your local Catholic bookstore.


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