By Jason Farr, Program Associate, with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership.
Are you looking for a way to build your professional and leadership skills and give back to your community? Do you know about an issue that affects your community and feel like you have the knowledge and skills necessary to make an impact? Volunteering is a great way to do these things, but there is a type of volunteering that can take your desire to serve to the next level—serving on the board of directors for nonprofits and/or community based organizations.
What exactly is a board of directors? As defined in the NCWD/Youth tip sheet on serving on decision making boards, “A board is a group of people who give advice, share expertise, and provide leadership to direct organizations in what they should and should not do.” Board members are not staff, but typically volunteers that can assist the organization in achieving its goals. A good board will recruit members with a variety of skill sets necessary to be effective and take advantage of each person’s own unique attributes.
The amount of work required from a board varies depending on the organization’s needs. Many boards for larger organizations meet less frequently (often quarterly), are not involved in day-to-day operations, and work primarily on long term strategic planning and the various other higher level activities, like monitoring the organization’s financial position, developing and approving an annual budget, and fundraising. For smaller nonprofits, board members are responsible for the items mentioned above but often take on a role similar to that of a staff person as well by working on operational duties and making a greater time commitment. This is not to say that all boards are like this or that large organizations require less from their board, but many new or small organizations lean heavily on their board to accomplish their mission.
As a member of the board of directors for a small nonprofit called Community Foodworksin Washington, DC, I experienced a bit of both of what I described above. When I joined this board and was elected Treasurer, the organization had one part-time staff person and five board members. In this iteration of the board, our board chair functioned as our Executive Director, and, as Treasurer, I was our finance department. It was demanding, but so rewarding! I was able to take advantage of some of the skills I already had, learn new skills, and give back to my community by providing a critical service for a small nonprofit. Two years in, the organization has grown and we’ve hired two full-time staff, two part-time staff, and a part time accountant. While the organization is still very small, this growth allowed the board to step back while the new staff took over all day-to-day operations. Now the board focuses more on the sorts of higher level needs mentioned before.
Most of you who go on to serve on a board will likely serve a smaller organization, at least to start. In this role, aside from providing input during board meetings, you will almost certainly be asked to volunteer at events hosted by the organization, recruit other volunteers, and do a variety of other things all nonprofits need to do to succeed. And, while you’re expected to come with some of your own know-how, you and the other board members will often find yourselves learning from each other all while getting great teamwork experience.
You may feel intimidated or think you do not have what is needed to serve effectively on a board. You may even have looked up the board of directors for some large national organizations. If you did this, it is reasonable to be intimidated. Boards of national or simply much larger nonprofits often consist of CEOs, Presidents and Deans of Universities, and other people you may consider to be on a different level than you in their professional career. Keep in mind, many boards want a variety of members, including those who are in different stages of their careers or can provide valuable input from their own life experiences. Many organizations, especially those that serve youth, are actively seeking young people to join their boards to ensure their voices are being heard.
So how can you join a board? I started as a weekly volunteer at Community Foodworks and got to know some of the leadership. After putting in hard work volunteering on a program operating in my community, I was asked if I would be interested in joining the board. But you do not have to wait to be asked. If you are good volunteer at an organization and are interested in joining the board, let the leadership know. You may also research the boards of local groups in your area, see if there is a good fit for you, and then reach out to a board member about joining.
For those of you interested in issues affecting your community, developing your skills as a professional and a leader, and learning about managing a nonprofit organization, serving on a board of directors just might be a great opportunity for you.