By Josephine Victoria Yam, J.D., LLM.
2016 August 8
Have you ever thought of volunteering as a board member of a nonprofit board? Maybe you now have more time to volunteer over and above lending “extra hands” in a soup kitchen twice a year. Or maybe you now want to share your skills and expertise in an impactful way by joining other like-minded professionals providing governance and leadership to a nonprofit.
And why not? Volunteering to serve on a nonprofit board provides you with so many long-term personal and professional benefits.
Before you join a particular nonprofit board, ask yourself the following 5 questions:
Reflect on the causes you are passionate about. Is the nonprofit’s mission and vision aligned with causes you feel personally connected to? As a board member, you will be one of the main ambassadors of the nonprofit’s mission. So it is very important that you deeply care about and can advocate for the nonprofit’s mission and vision in creating positive change in the community. You need to be deeply and personally inspired by the nonprofit’s mission and vision so that your board service gives you a strong sense of personal gratification in making a difference in the world.
Determine how much time you are willing to commit to the nonprofit. A nonprofit’s bylaws articulate the number of meetings its board conducts annually. Some boards may meet once a month while others boards may meet once a quarter. Some meetings are held for two hours while some may last longer. Then there are standing and ad hoc board committees that board members may also be requested to join. Such committees include the audit and finance committee, board development committee, revenue development committee, marketing and communications committee, and human resources development committee, among others. These committees may meet once a month or once a quarter as well over the year. You should be able to carve out time from your schedule to attend all board and committee meetings of those committees you are a member of. While board service generally requires at least a 1-year commitment or longer - versus the common “done-in-a-day” (i.e. cooking pancakes on Stampede Week) volunteer opportunities - the dividends you receive from contributing to a nonprofit’s long-term success is limitless.
Find out if the nonprofit has financial expectations from each board member. And if so, for how much. For example, does the nonprofit expect each board member to make an annual financial contribution (i.e. $1000) to show her serious commitment to the nonprofit? Interestingly, some of my Executive Director friends running U.S. nonprofits mentioned to me that their nonprofit boards have a “give, get or get out policy”. This policy requires each board member to “give” a specific amount as a donation; fundraise or “get” that amount from her network of contacts; or leave the board (“get out”) if she is unable to give or get that financial contribution for the nonprofit. Such policy does not appear to be commonplace in Canada’s nonprofit sector. If the nonprofit you wish to join has any financial requirements for its board members, then assess whether it is something you are willing and able to commit to on an annual basis.
Assess which professional skills and expertise you can bring to the boardroom. These may be skills and expertise that you have already developed in your day job. Or there may be a whole set of different skills you wish to develop distinct from those you use at work. For example, while I am a lawyer by profession, I found myself participating side by side several chartered accountants and financial whiz folks in the finance & audit committee of a large nonprofit for several years. That enriching committee experience taught me how to eventually read financial statements, interpret financial ratios and apply risk management principles in a very dynamic setting. Find out what board member qualities, characteristics and skills the nonprofit board needs. Is there a fit between all that you offer and what it requires? When you serve on a board, you not only share your skills and expertise. You also develop additional leadership, organizational and communication skills that are beneficial to your career advancement and professional growth.
Conduct some due diligence on the nonprofit’s performance over the past several years. For example, obtain a copy of its audited financial statements for the past years, which may be posted on its website. By reviewing its financials, you will know whether or not it has been consistently operating on a surplus. You will know if the nonprofit is facing some organizational challenges. You will know its main revenue streams and can see whether they are secured over the long term. Being fully aware of the financial health of the organization prepares you for the board member role you assume in respect of governance, risk management and financial oversight.
Having answered these questions, you will have a better idea of whether you are ready, willing and able to join a nonprofit board. Serving on a nonprofit board is an honour and privilege. It is a worthwhile experience that can enrich your life as you work side-by-side other highly skilled and experienced philanthropists who are committed to make a difference in the world.
As the renowned painter Pablo Picasso once remarked:
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”