Over my 25+ years in business, I have had the good fortune to serve on a number of non-profit boards and am grateful for the enriching experiences, people I have met and worthy causes I have served. One of the benefits I’ve gleaned from years of community service are lessons about how to effectively serve on a non-profit board. This post seeks to summarize these lessons into an easy-to-follow road map that will hopefully enrich your board service experience and help add value to the organizations you serve.

“Why should I serve on this non-profit board?” This is the fundamental question we should ask ourselves before accepting a board position. Our time is often stretched thin and free minutes are precious, so evaluate any extra time commitments with thoughtful discernment. I recommend asking/researching the following questions as part of the evaluation process:

  • What is the reputation of the organization in the community? Is the leadership team effective? Can I speak with references and existing board members?
  • How often does the board meet and what is the time commitment required of board members?
  • Does the board have D&O (Directors and Officers) insurance?
  • What will I have to sacrifice personally and professionally in order to give this organization what it requires of me?
  • Can I involve my family and friends in the activities of the organization?
  • Do my passions, values and interests align with the mission of the organization?
  • Will my skills and experiences help me be effective on the board?
  • Am I willing to champion the cause of this organization to my network and potentially ask for donations?
  • Is there a minimum personal donation required of board members?

In my first board role more than 20 years ago, I was so excited to be invited that I didn’t ask many questions. Even though the mission of the organization aligned with my passions and interests, I quickly learned that the non-profit had a dysfunctional leadership team, a poor reputation in the community and they desperately needed me to help them raise money. It was a painful lesson for me, but I learned from it.

Making a Difference or Padding a Resume

Let’s be honest here. Ask yourself if your desire to serve on a non-profit board is to truly make a difference or build your resume. I have worked alongside professionals from both camps. The people who have a heart for service add significant value and find their experience rewarding. People wanting to serve for the sake of appearances can have a negative effect on the organization by not contributing at the expected level and taking the seat of someone who is willing to be more active.

Innovative Ways to Add Value

Did you know there are other ways to help the organizations you are serving besides writing a big check? While individual contributions are obviously helpful and needed, we may not always be in a position to provide significant financial resources. I have helped develop alternative ways to provide value to the non-profits I have served. Here are a few proven ideas:

  • The small gathering.  Host a small, intimate gathering (10-15 people) in your office or at a local restaurant of other business leaders to hear a guest speaker present on a relevant topic. This can be an author, recognized business leader or a professional service provider offering their views on a relevant business topic or market trends. Invite the head of your non-profit organization and make introductions. Provide a meal in a relaxed setting and invite people who have a heart for giving back. This approach creates more awareness in the business community for the non-profit, attracts potential volunteers for the organization’s projects and draws potential donors.
  • The Leadership Forum concept.  This is a modification of the above idea, but think bigger. Every few months my firm hosts a Leadership Forum, usually in partnership with one of my business clients, at one of the ROAM Innovative Workplace locations (www.meetatroam.com). We invite 75-100 senior business leaders to hear someone of interest present on a relevant business topic. We often select a non-profit that one of our firms supports as a “Community Sponsor,” place their logo and information in our marketing materials and recognize them at the Forum. We invite the organization’s leader to say a few words and offer a place for them to distribute marketing information. The events are free and we invest in coffee and a light breakfast for the attendees. Everyone involved—the speaker, attendees, hosting firms and the non-profit—benefits.
  • Gifts that matter. Every Christmas, many of us give generously to our clients and business colleagues to whom we wish to show our appreciation. Next year, instead of giving the overstuffed gift basket or box of cookies, make a donation on their behalf to your favorite non-profit. Each year Serviam Partners makes donations to our favorite causes in the name of clients and friends; the response has been wonderful and we are able to help in a meaningful way the causes we support throughout the year.
  • Open your network.  Actively introduce key business leaders and other valuable resources to the leaders of the non-profits you serve. If you are aware of its organizational needs, you may be able to get friends to donate their skills and professional services pro-bono which is of enormous value. This can also be a useful way to help recruit additional board members. These coffee and lunch meetings you facilitate can often produce a lot of positive results for both parties and it is as simple as sending an introductory email.
  • Promote, promote, promote.  Use email and social media to promote the non-profits you serve. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter updates on upcoming events for your non-profits can help raise their profile in the community. Send updates to your network when the organization is in the news or if any of the leadership is quoted. This is incredibly valuable and costs a minimal investment of time.

Things to Avoid

As much as this post is about things to do, I also want to address what to avoid when serving on a non-profit board. Here are a few observations from my experiences about what NOT to do:

  • Don’t over commit. Be prudent with our time when volunteering for a board or committee assignment. I only serve on boards that align with my top three passions. This keeps me focused and allows me to add true value to my favorite causes.
  • Don’t be impatient.  Non-profits don’t typically run like our companies and process, deadlines and growing revenue can often be alien concepts.
  • Don’t forget to “experience” what the non-profit is all about.  Don’t serve on a board and fail to get personally involved in their mission. Get out in the field and help! We can’t sell what we haven’t experienced firsthand.
  • Don’t ignore the need to build collaborative friendships on the board. We will be relying on each other in the future to get things done, so spend quality time with our fellow board members. I am grateful for the incredible friendships I have built through my years of board service.
  • Don’t be ungrateful. Here is a helpful tip a mentor gave me two decades ago which I have never forgotten: “Don’t ever serve on the board of a non-profit and expect them to be grateful to you. That is absolutely the wrong attitude. You should always be grateful for the opportunity to serve their worthy cause.”
  • Don’t overstay our welcome. What I mean is we should not look at any board service as a “life sentence”. Let’s serve with passion and help the organization(s) to the best of our ability, but we should always be developing our replacements to give others the same opportunity to serve that we were given. We can still support the organization(s) after we exit the board, but I argue we should not serve on a board beyond two or three years.

I am a better person because I give time to serve non-profits in our community. As I have gotten older, I’m keenly aware of what causes I am passionate about and what I truly have to offer. My hope is that the thoughts in this post will help you maximize your own non-profit board experiences and make a meaningful difference in the community.

We have much to offer, these organizations need our help…let’s get started.

Randy Hain is an executive coach, consultant, author, speaker and the founder of Serviam Partners (www.ServiamPartners.com). He is the award-winning author of seven books, including LANDED! Proven Job Search Strategies for Today’s Professional, Something More: The Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life and his newest work Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for Fathers of Children with Special Needs. All of his books are available on Amazon.