Board Membership: Finding the Right Fit

By     Mar 21, 2013

photo: IIP State

As an emerging leader, it can be difficult finding a nonprofit board to join. I am full of passion, curiosity, hunger and drive, but figuring out the right organization in which to invest this energy can be challenging. Having taken the board and governance elective during my graduate school program, I am now interested in turning theoretical knowledge into practical experience. With an ultimate goal of becoming an executive director, I hope to start gaining governance experience as soon as possible.

How do you begin to search for nonprofit governance opportunities? And, once you find them, how do you determine the opportunity that best suits your needs and goals? The process can be a bit intimidating and lengthy. I’m ready and excited to become a board member, but even with all this eagerness and interest, I’m worry about whether I have enough practical knowledge to be an effective trustee, about communicating my value and about helping an organization recognize the skills and perspective I can offer. How will I compare to the other board members? Will my input be equally valued?

According to this article, these questions and fears are pretty common, but you shouldn’t let that discourage you. It’s important to have a clear intention for why you want to join a board, so you can easily communicate that to others. Be sure to know what you are looking for, the skills you have to offer and how you intend for the opportunity to help you develop as a professional. This will make the search more bearable. Given my insecurities, I figured an opportunity serving on a small or working board would be the best start. But in evaluating my experience lately, that may not be the best solution. I recently connected with some small organizations with the intention of joining the board. Starting as a volunteer, I realized they lacked the infrastructure to organize and engage volunteers.  I have become frustrated in trying to find a governing body that will value my input and that can clearly convey how I can contribute. A more established board may overlook a fresh voice, but a working board may not have the infrastructure necessary to give you the type of governing experience you seek.

Aside from my own concerns, there are several assumptions often made about emerging leaders, and these stereotypes can present challenges when searching for an appropriate governance opportunity. These characteristics don’t apply to all emerging leaders, and some more enlightened organizations won’t let these influence their search for board members. But it is wise to be aware of the presumptions you may encounter in your search to help you discern and determine the best fit. For example, many assume emerging leaders have very little discretionary income and will be unable to contribute the necessary funds to serve on the board. This may be true for some emerging leaders, but you should help the organization realize the other critical skills you can offer outside of a financial contribution, such as a fresh perspective, authentic energy and added expertise. Oftentimes, current board members do not fulfill the “give or get” requirement, so the board may need to re-assess its criteria when searching for new members and reconsider whether financial capacity should be a primary consideration in board member cultivation. Having wealthy or wealth-connected board members may help resolve current financial constraints, but how might that affect or impact the organization’s long-term goals and vision?

During board recruitment, organizations are typically searching for members that can bring new connections and expertise to the board. Some may assume that an emerging leader’s limited connections and experience will not contribute much to the progress of the organization and they are in turn overlooked. This can be challenging to overcome, but as an emerging leader, your network and expertise may be vaster than you think. Many emerging leaders have advanced degrees in arts management, for example. Given that this is a relatively new degree, many older professionals do not have this direct educational experience. The knowledge and network from an arts management graduate program is very valuable as it can connect the organization with additional working professionals, professors, management practices and resources. This is certainly unique and you want to be sure to highlight that.

Some organizations are also hesitant to add emerging leaders because of their limited weekday schedules. Emerging leaders usually have lower positions and are unable to leave work for mid-day meetings and events. But this is not unique to emerging leaders, as other employed board members may also have this challenge. It can be hard for professionals at any level to adjust their professional/personal schedules, even with advance notice. And while it may be true that emerging leaders have less flexibility during the work week, they may have more time to give outside of work. Typically, emerging leaders are younger, and don’t have as many personal constraints when it comes to lending their time. They may also be more willing to volunteer given their professional agenda. The volunteering will give them experience to builds their skills, as opposed to more seasoned board members who do not share the same professional goals.

As mentioned in this BoardSource report, adding an emerging leader to the board can be extremely beneficial to the organization, and nonprofits should evaluate their current boards and consider what a younger board member may be able to offer the organization. Does adding an emerging leader to the board align with the organization’s mission? Who is your community? Does the board reflect the community that the organization is serving? Can adding an emerging leader help achieve that goal? These leaders may offer a fresh perspective, new network and motivation. They may question the organization’s dominant logic and encourage the board to be more results-oriented.

The board should regularly assess its purpose and its membership to ensure they are remaining relevant to the work and mission of the organization. Sometimes, however, even when a board recognizes they need to adjust, they don’t know where to start the search and recruitment of emerging leaders to serve on the board. It’s not often organizations conduct an “open call” for new board members, and they will likely rely on their current members’ connections. As an emerging leader looking to join a board, your network can be an important tool in helping you be recommended as a potential new board member. Be sure to communicate to your network that you are searching for a governance opportunity. Remaining connected to your alma mater, joining professional and social groups and long-term volunteerism are ways also you can become relevant to organizations when they are considering new trustees. The more people you know, the higher the chance you’ll be referred and considered when the board conducts this search.

My colleague Fielding recently utilized his network to become a board member, so it only seemed appropriate to ask him about his experience. In the video below, he discusses becoming a board member and shares his ideas about how an emerging leader can successfully find the right governance opportunity.

What challenges have you encountered in the search for a nonprofit governance experience, and how did you overcome them?


Editor’s note: Since this piece was posted, several of the links have become nonfunctional. We’re working to find the new locations for these resources and will update these links as soon as we can. Thanks for your patience!