Joining a Nonprofit Board of Directors

Nicholas J Price
6 min read

Perhaps you never considered serving on a board of directors for a nonprofit corporation because you didn’t think it was in your wheelhouse. The reality is that nearly everyone has as much to gain from the experience of serving on a nonprofit board of directors as they contribute. Most people consider it an honor to be asked to serve on a nonprofit board. In most cases, board service is a positive and rewarding experience — one that can also fuel your career.

Chances are good that when you know your expectations upfront and you enter your duties with a willingness to take on responsibility, your experience as a nonprofit board director will eventually become a cherished memory in your life.

The experience of serving on a nonprofit board of directors requires you to take on three roles. First, in the boardroom, you’ll take on responsibility for governance. You’ll need to ask questions, make decisions and help the nonprofit grow and flourish. Second, since nonprofits largely rely on a solid base of volunteers to perform their work, expect to dedicate some number of hours to volunteer service. Finally, you’ll be an ambassador of the cause. How you speak about the organization and portray it to others will help enhance its reputation.

What You Have to Gain From Serving on a Nonprofit Board

Serving on a nonprofit board of directors will enhance your character, increase your understanding and provide you with immeasurable experience.

Nonprofit board experience requires collaboration and group work, which will help you increase your patience and diplomacy skills. The relationships that you acquire through the experience will increase your network and expand your sphere of influence. Your experiences and relationships will undoubtedly enrich your resume and may also lead to unexpected career opportunities.

Board service will give you a greater understanding of how assets may also become liabilities and how to handle them either way. If you take full advantage of your board experience, you can expect to come away from your experience with greater understanding of how to run board meetings and governance in general. Nonprofit organizations are also following the practice of corporate boards in utilizing board management software solutions. Experience using board portals offers valuable experience for board directors in their careers. That experience is even more beneficial if they choose to pursue corporate board experience in the future.

Fundraising is a major part of nonprofit board of director service. However, not everyone is a natural at asking others for money. Nonprofit organizations learn how to fine-tune the process of asking for donations and pass this skill on to their board members and volunteers. This is a valuable skill that can come in handy in many other facets of life.

Most importantly, as a nonprofit board director, you’ll become a true champion for a cause that has a lot of meaning for you.

Five Things to Think About Before Joining a Nonprofit Board

Many things will be running through your mind as you consider whether you want to make the commitment to nonprofit board service. At a minimum, you should consider the following five things before you accept a position on a nonprofit board of directors:

  1. Expect to Make a Financial Commitment

Whoever nominates you to their board may forget to tell you that they expect you to make personal financial contributions to the organizations, and you may forget to ask about it. It’s considered good governance to ask how much the board expects you to give. Small nonprofits don’t always expect larger donations. Larger nonprofits may expect board directors to make personal contributions in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

  1. Ask About Fundraising Expectations

It’s rare for nonprofit board directors not to participate in fundraising in some way. Before accepting a position on a nonprofit board, it’s wise to ask if they expect you to pursue personal or professional sources of donations from people you know. Some nonprofits adhere to a “give or get” philosophy, which means that the board expects their peers to acquire donations from their personal or professional networks. If they aren’t successful, the board expects them to personally donate the difference in the amount they failed to fundraise.

Larger nonprofit organizations often plan for an annual gala. Board directors who give at this event should learn ahead of time if any amounts they contribute during the gala will count toward their yearly annual giving.

New board directors can also expect to give of their time and expertise. Fellow board members should be clear about how much time they expect you to offer and how they expect you to use your expertise for the good of the organization.

  1. Expectations for Term Limits

Board terms for nonprofit organizations range from one year to several years. Be sure to ask how long your board position will last. The board typically has staggered terms so that the entire board doesn’t refresh all at once. Your length of service depends on whether you’re finishing someone else’s term and the length of term for your seat. Some boards hold an automatic expectation that you will automatically renew your term. Know when your term ends and let the rest of the board know ahead of time if you don’t intend to serve a subsequent term.

  1. Expectations for Nonprofit Board Duties

Perhaps you already have some ideas about how you feel you can best contribute your time and talents to the organization. The rest of the board may have other ideas for you. It’s best to get on the same page with other board members regarding their expectations. Ask ahead of time if you can select the tasks you want to perform and the committees on which you want to serve.

  1. Does the Nonprofit Have Directors and Officers Insurance Liability Coverage?

While it may not seem immediately important, board director candidates should inquire about whether the board has a liability policy for directors and officers. This type of policy is also called a D&O policy. According to a 2012 Towers Watson survey, about 63% of nonprofits filed a liability claim. D&O insurance covers board directors, their spouses, their assets and the organization’s assets. Board directors of nonprofits that have no D&O insurance or inadequate limits may want to consider obtaining a personal umbrella policy. Be aware that many personal umbrella insurance policies exclude coverage for insureds who serve on boards of directors.

Final Tips on Joining a Nonprofit Board of Directors

Before offering your final acceptance for a nonprofit board seat, do as much research on the organization and the current board as you can. Learn whether they’re a start-up and whether they’re struggling or growing. Ask for a copy of their bylaws, last meeting minutes and financial statements. Ask other board members whether the board truly engages in strategic issues that affect the future of the organization. If in doubt, start small and get your feet wet by volunteering or serving on a committee.