Two years ago, I joined the board of a grassroots community organization with idealistic hopes of improving the quality of life in my community.  And now, I find myself serving as Board President of the organization.  While not a common role for a 27 year old nonprofit program coordinator, it is a role I am eager and anxious to play.

The organization is fairly small with an operating budget of $200,000 and four staff members; but there are large challenges to overcome.  As of July 2007, we were officially without an Executive Director, leaving the board to take care of ensuring a large majority of the organization’s operations.  Not an ideal circumstance by any means, and certainly not the role a governing board should be playing, but our reality nonetheless.   In an attempt to build the capacity of the organization and ensure this very situation does not repeat itself in the future, our hard working board set out on a process of renewal.

By renewal, I am referring to: new policies, new procedures, reexamining the mission, planning, possible staff restructuring, new volunteer recruitment and financial management systems, new fundraising efforts, building and renewing relationships, new branding initiatives, did I mention planning, office 5S’ing, continued project work, etc.  Whew!  Do I sound tired?  We are all very tired, but we do it because we know we are working toward a revitalized and stronger organization.  We know the capacity we are building today will help to ensure that people will still be served by our organization thirty years from now.

So, what is the moral of my little story?  I’m here to tell you that nonprofit board service can be a great way to build skills and relationships in the nonprofit sector (although I might recommend you start out a little less intensely than I did!).  If you do not currently serve on a nonprofit board, or feel that you may be too young or inexperienced to do so, here are a few reasons to consider it:

  • The opportunity to challenge yourself and develop specific skills:  To deal with the long list of tasks mentioned above, our board distributes the work load to various committees.  So while you may not think you have the skills or interests to tackle all of those tasks, you may have an interest in developing your skills in human resource management for instance.  Serving on a board’s personnel committee could be fantastic way to learn how to craft relevant and fair personnel policies, find new and innovative ways to recruit and hire talented leadership for the organization, and plan for the financial and organizational implications of a possible staff expansion.  As another example, I don’t play a large role in the fund development activities of our organization.  But as a board member, I have to challenge myself to overcome some of my natural inhibitions and develop my skills in fundraising; including developing an annual giving program, special events planning and major gifts solicitation.

  • The ability to serve a mission closest to your heart:  Since you don’t always have a multitude of job options to choose from entering the nonprofit sector, you may not always find yourself being paid to support the cause or mission you are most passionate about personally.  Board service is an important way to impact the mission(s) you hold dearest to your heart, without worrying about whether or not you can find a job related to it. 

  • The chance to learn from a skilled Executive Director and/or staff:  If you are a young or emerging nonprofit professional, you may not have had the chance to work with a large number of other nonprofit staff at this point in your career.  Serving on a board of directors affords you the opportunity to partner with staff and leadership on a different level within an organization.  It can also allow you to “see the other side of the fence” to prepare for the time when you might serve as an Executive Director in the future.  What a great way to gain insight on how best to interact and develop relationships with your future board of directors. 

  • The opportunity to be a part of a great team and build relationships:  The most rewarding part of my experience on the board has been, by far, the relationships I have been able to develop with my fellow board members, volunteers and staff.  We share a common goal, and with that comes shared accountability, support and friendships.  They may not realize it, but I am learning from them every day.  One board member displays a gentle leadership style that can easily dispel conflicts that arise; one has a knack for keeping meetings focused and driving forward; and one is a creative visionary that challenges us to keep looking at news ways of accomplishing our goals.  If you ask me, I couldn’t pay a million dollars in tuition to gain this kind of valuable experience.

I strongly encourage you to find an organization you would like to build a relationship with.  It is a challenging and rewarding experience, full of personal and professional lessons along the way. 

– Nicole Notario-Risk
Gen X