If you aren't on a nonprofit board yet, you should be (especially if you are a nonprofit manager)! And if you are already on a nonprofit board, there's another board in your future. First we have questions to ask yourself before seeking a board, and then how to find the right next opportunity for making a difference:
Imagine you were about to make a major donation, say $100,000. You would start by thinking about which areas mean the most to you -- perhaps care for the elderly, or civil rights, or the environment. After settling on a cause, you might then look into several different organizations in that field (see further down for how) and investigate ones that seem to have high impact and where your donation would mean a lot.
Contrast this with how we often choose which board to join: someone asked us! While on a board you'll be making a huge donation of time, attention, and your heart (and maybe money). It's worth being proactive.
Questions to ask yourself:
1. Is this the right cause for me? Think first about the cause or issue, rather than about a particular organization. Are end-of-life issues important to you? Are you furious about tax policies and want to change them? Do you feel that the history of your Armenian community is being lost?
2. What do I want to learn, accomplish, or gain from board service? You might want to seek out an organization where you can involve your young children in volunteer work. Or you might want to re-connect with your ethnic community, or get to be backstage helping on a stage production. Don't be embarrassed about what you want to gain: these "benefits" are part of what will keep you committed, including building skills and experience in communications, finance, or group leadership.
3. What can I -- and what will I -- contribute to this organization? Would I feel comfortable introducing my customers to this organization? Can I commit to attending all the meetings? What financial donation am I willing to make? Am I comfortable having my name as a board member on their website?
The time to ask these questions is before, not after, you have joined the board.
4. What do I need to make certain I do while on the board? An all-too-common experience for board members at the end of their terms is a feeling that they didn't, after all, really get deeply involved and as a result, they don't feel that they either helped as much or gained as much as they had hoped.
For instance, if there's a community leader on the board you'd love to get to know, promise yourself to have lunch with her within the first two months. If you don't have a finance background but want to learn, ask to be on the finance committee. If one of your reasons for joining was to meet new people, be sure you volunteer for the annual luncheon or staff a table at the street fair. Ask the staff to take you to visit the young people in prison, the closed wilderness area, the auditions for new dancers. In short: don't volunteer at the pool without ever jumping into the water.
Finding a board to join
1. Ask your friends and fellow board members. Instead of waiting for them to ask you, ask them: "Are you on any nonprofit boards? Tell me about them." Serving together is a great way to make a friendship even more meaningful.
2. Ask about board opportunities where you already volunteer. The arts center, the bicycle coalition, or the Alzheimer's center may not know you'd be interested!
3. Look online. Go to VolunteerMatch.org and type "board" in the Keywords box. Links to local postings and volunteer centers are at HandsOnNetwork.org. More limited listings are at Bridgestar.org (go to Find Jobs and Board Positions in the Career Center) and at BoardNetUSA.org. If these don't work, just type in "water conservation, "nonprofit," and your city into Google and see what you find.
4. Post your availability on your Facebook page. "I'm looking for the right nonprofit board to join. Since you know me, you know what I'm interested in and what I'm good at. Help connect me to the right board!"
5. Ask other board members and the executive director of the organization where you're already on the board. Ask for suggestions for your next board, possibly in the same field but not necessarily. Nonprofit executives and board members are often well-networked and if you've been a good board member, he will be delighted to help you lead another organization.
Your community career
Just as with work, you can't expect to go straight from college to being the CEO of a big company. Your work career will take twists and turns as you move from one company to another. Similarly, your community career will wind around and up as you move from one volunteer opportunity to another, moving into different organizations and different fields. You won't start out as the board president of the opera or the ACLU, but you will take board or committee leadership positions, learn, and grow.
Take the small amount of time needed to guide your community career as you have your work career. Invest your time and your heart -- worth far more than $100,000 -- in meaningful work.
Jan Masaoka is Editor in Chief of Blue Avocado and a board member of New America Media, a national journalism organization of ethnic and youth media. She frequently speaks to and about nonprofit boards. This article is adapted from one in Best of the Board Cafe, Second Edition, published by Fieldstone Alliance.
See also in Blue Avocado: