Join a nonprofit board

Overview

Retirement can be a time to do more of what you are passionate about, or begin a new activity thanks to having newfound time and flexibility. Serving on a board for a nonprofit can be both a new beginning, and an opportunity to put skills and experience developed over a career to use. Certainly if you have a cause that has been important to you, serving on the right board can bring deep fulfillment. And, you very likely have skills and relationships that can make a positive impact on the organization you join and those it serves. While membership on a nonprofit board does bring commitments in terms of time, your more relaxed schedule in retirement can work to your advantage. Whether you’re just exploring this option or have already decided to join a board, the information on these pages will provide you with clarity and direction.

Am I right for this?

10 yes/no questions to help you determine if this is a good direction for you

Does the time commitment involved in serving on a nonprofit board fit my retirement plan?

Am I prepared to undergo a background check and other deep vetting in being considered for selection to a board?

Am I prepared to contribute financially if that is a requirement of board members?

Can I commit significant time to meetings, fundraising and participation in the nonprofit’s activities?

Am I ok with rolling up my sleeves and doing menial work at times if that is required?

Am I willing to serve on one or more committees, in addition to attending full board meetings?

Am I prepared to use my personal and professional resources on behalf of the cause?

Am I interested in helping an organization with administrative, strategic or governance activities?

Do I have the support of family members or others who will be directly impacted by the time commitment involved in joining a nonprofit board?

Am I willing to deal with an organization’s internal, personnel and cultural issues?

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If you answer six or more “yes,” this is probably a good direction to pursue.

Reasons to join a nonprofit board

  • Leverage the expertise you have accumulated throughout your career
  • Support a cause you feel strongly about
  • Meet interesting, influential people
  • Stay active in your community or industry
  • Provide leadership and guidance to an organization
  • Enhance your resume

Roles and responsibilities for nonprofit board members

  • Determining the organization’s mission and purpose
  • Voting for executive director and other leadership roles
  • Financial oversight for the organization
  • Legal and ethical integrity andaccountability
  • Stewardship of financial resources/fundraising
  • Overseeing organizational strategic planning
  • Supporting/supervising CEO
  • Enhance organization’s public image
  • Executing programs and services

Issues that you are likely to deal with as a member of a nonprofit board

  • Unhappy staff /volunteers
  • Tax laws / regulatory compliance
  • Copyrights and trademarks
  • Lobbying and political activity compliance
  • Abusive workplace complaints, third-party sexual harassment
  • Contracting disputes with vendors and others
  • Conflicts of interest/aligning policy with mission
  • Insurance concerns

How you are likely to be recruited to a nonprofit board

  • Through existing members/volunteers or current board members
  • Organization donors
  • People who have benefitted from the organization’s work
  • Social media
  • Recruitment strategies of the organization itself
  • Follow up after participating inboard development workshops
  • Interactive online search for qualified candidates

Typical activities of nonprofit board members

  • Attend meetings
  • Contribute financially
  • Serve on/lead committees
  • Support fundraising drives
  • Participate on variety of projects and activities

Q&A

Here are questions and answers that address common issues and concerns for those interested in joining a nonprofit board.

Question

What are the types of nonprofit boards?

Answer

Nonprofit boards are categorized in one of two ways: “working boards” versus “governing boards.” Working board members focus on the organization’s mission - creating programming, fundraising, balancing books, etc. Working boards have few, if any, paid staff. The majority of nonprofits have working boards. In contrast, a governing board provides 100K foot oversight of the organization. This includes finances, high level governance, recruiting and contributing leadership expertise as necessary.

Question

How competitive is it to get on a nonprofit board?

Answer

The best nonprofit boards are highly discriminating in selecting members, in many cases driven by the IRS, as well as their own standards. While some nonprofit board memberships are filled without a lot of competition, in many instances, boards are seeking outstanding individuals. Be aware that the screening process may be opaque until you receive a formal invitation. Your best practice is to approach every interaction with an organization of interest as if it is part of the screening process, always presenting yourself with integrity, showing passion and commitment towards the organization’s mission.

Question

How long is a typical board membership?

Answer

The average length is three years, but it varies depending on the board.

Question

What is the difference between being on the board of an organization or being a volunteer?

Answer

It all comes down to what kind of involvement you want to have. As a board member you would be involved in broader strategic governance type activities. It is likely to require more vetting of you by the organization, more time on your part, potentially a financial commitment and more overall responsibility. As a volunteer you would have more flexibility and presumably less responsibility. Both roles, however, would provide a high degree of satisfaction and intrinsic reward.

Question

What vetting should I do of the organization in deciding to join their board?

Answer

Most nonprofit organizations are relatively transparent, so gaining insight into their inner workings and structure should not be difficult. According to BoardEffect, these are some of the items to examine:

  • Bylaws
  • Articles of incorporation
  • Annual report
  • Financial reports
  • Previous meeting minutes
  • Committee reports
  • Organizational chart
  • Strategic plan
  • Board director contact list
  • Form 990
Question

What kind of formal or legal commitment is likely to be required if I join a nonprofit board?

Answer

Board member agreements, often in the form of commitment letters, are documents setting forth the organization's expectations for members. While they are not necessarily legal contracts, they set clear expectations, and serve as a basis for removal of underperforming members. Items generally include board meeting attendance, conflicts of interest, impartiality, loyalty to the organization, confidentiality, associating the organization with outside political interests, and fulfillment of fiduciary duties.

Question

What kind of background check is likely to be conducted when I pursue nonprofit board membership?

Answer

Ensuring organizational integrity and reputation are why many nonprofits conduct background checks. When they are conducted, they must comply with relevant local, state, and federal laws. At a minimum, a public records search is often conducted on new board members. You can ask if the board membership selection process will entail a background check and what criteria will be reviewed.

Option Evaluator

Assess this option against the following eight criteria:

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Additional resources

Next steps:

Step 1

Determine if it makes sense for you to join a nonprofit board based on the “Is this Right for Me” section.

Step 2

Narrow your list of potential boards using the internet.

Step 3

For each organization on your shortlist, determine:

  • Is it a cause/mission I truly care about?
  • Are there skills I can offer which the board needs?
  • Can I meet required donation amounts?
  • Is the board structure(working board vs governing board) right for me?
  • Am I excited at the prospect of serving on its board?
Step 4

Invest time and energy vetting the chosen organization. Try to meetvolunteers and board members.

Step 5

Contact the board of your preferred organization, asking to be considered as a candidate for board membership.

Step 6

Tailor your resume to address skills and accomplishments important to the nonprofit.

Step 7

Prepare an elevator pitch to use with interested parties addressing why you seek membership and why your experience provides exceptional qualifications.

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Get started

Talk to an expert. Explore the options. Dig a little deeper. See if this is right for you.