Last fall I registered for a class at the Humphrey School that required me to be on a board. I knew little about boards, but was interested in them. I just didn’t know why anyone would want me on a board or how to find one. I’m young-ish, haven’t worked in the Twin Cities nonprofit sector for very long, don’t have a lot of money, and I’m not well connected to rich or prestigious people. But there I was, required to serve on a board.
My boss was just finishing some consulting working with Rainbow Rumpus. She thought it would be a good fit for me because the organization was in a period of growth; they were high functioning board; the people on the board were good people to work with; and there would be a lot of leadership opportunities. So I contacted them.
I filled out a board matrix for them about my interests and experience and sent them my resume. Soon, I was having coffee with the executive director and one of the board co-chairs. I sought out feedback from a friend that had been volunteering for them for a while, and started doing research on them by checking out their website.
And in October of last year, I became a board member at Rainbow Rumpus.
In recent months, I’ve been surprised by the number of people I hear talking about their desire to serve on a board. It’s just that they either don’t know how to find one, or don’t think a board would want them. Let me first say: Boards want you! And here are some things to think about as you consider approaching them:
- What do you hope to gain. Passion for the mission can often be the primary reason people serve on boards. But try to think more broadly. What else do you want to get out of the experience? People can have many reasons for serving on boards including a desire to learn and practice new skills or network professionally.
- What do you have to give. Board members should know not only what they want out of the experience, but also what they have to offer. As a young person just starting your career, you might not think that’s much. But think beyond the typical deep pockets and broad networks we associate with board membership. You could offer skills in leadership, marketing, technology, problem solving, speaking/presenting or creative thinking. Think broadly about what you have to offer, and then let them know!
- What do you WANT to give. It’s not just about what you have to offer, it’s also about what you WANT to offer. Maybe you are a lawyer, but are really more interested in event planning than providing legal services. Being clear about your expectations upfront helps ensure a good fit between your skills and their needs.
- Approach board service with humility not entitlement. Some people view board service as a recognition of hard work. They believe that being asked to serve on a board is something you earn. Being on a board is not about leading; it’s about being a part of the leadership team of an organization. You must be able to demonstrate your commitment to the organization, your willingness to do work and learn from current board members.
- Know who you are talking to. When you get to the point of interviewing for board service, you may be talking to the executive director, the board chair, an officer of the board, a member of the recruitment, board development, or governance committee or some combination of these people. It’s important to have an understanding of the role of the person you’re talking to. For example, the executive director can be the champion or the blocker of the board, while the board chair can set the tone of the board meetings and play a large role in determining the work of the board. Consider these people carefully. Are they people you can see yourself working with?
Boards are often looking for new members. With term limits in place and life running interference, all boards experience turnover. And with many boards struggling with recruitment, they would be happy to hear from you. Here are some practical tips for starting your search:
- Use your existing networks. Talk to your friends, family and co-workers. Do they work at or volunteer with organizations that interest you? Are any of them serving on boards now?
- Set up informational interviews. If you decide you want to serve on a board, think of it like a job search. If you have always served on the staff side of things, you might not be familiar with board environments. So get out there, introduce yourself and start asking questions.
- Check out MAP for Nonprofits. MAP not only provides training for board members, they also have a board placement service. Nonprofits contract MAP to find them board members through their recruiting service. It’s free to sign up to be listed as an interested board volunteer.
- Join Rainbow Rumpus! We are currently looking for new board members to round out our awesome team. (I wouldn’t be a good board member if I didn’t use my network, right?)
According to a study conducted in 2005 by the Urban Institute less than 7 percent of board members are under the age of 36. I think we can do better than that!
Are you currently serving on a board? How did you get there? If you are looking for a board, what are you finding challenging about your search?
This is the first of a three part series. In May, I’ll dive into the differences between boards (size, group dynamics, board governance models, etc.) and how to really find the right fit. In June, I’ll explore how the organization (its size, sector, funding streams, etc.) impacts the work of the board. It’s not just about serving on a board; it’s about serving on a board where you can have a positive impact on the organization and a positive experience.