What Do You Do as a Nonprofit Board Member?
While requirements and roles differ for each nonprofit board, there are a few consistent things you can expect when volunteering as a board member. For instance, you’ll be expected to donate financially and offer your time and skills. You’ll meet with the board and serve on a committee based on your skills and background. Board members are expected to come together and make decisions for the nonprofit and create positive changes.
But with every nonprofit, there might be something extra to give or gain as a board member. Justin shared his continuous training as a YWCA Madison board member, saying, “Probably the one thing that might be a little unique for the YWCA is that you're also required to participate in racial justice training on a regular basis. They work with local companies to provide workshops and things, and as a board member, you need to meet a minimum number of hours per year of continuous training.
What Makes a Great Board Member?
Joining the nonprofit board is one thing — putting your best self forward is what will help you drive real change. Let’s see what our corporate leaders believe are the best qualities in a nonprofit board member.
Passionate about the nonprofit
The first, and arguably most important, quality to a strong board member is someone that is passionate about their position. One way to ensure a member is fervent about their position is to align the nonprofit’s values with their own.
For example, Nyra broke down the three reasons her values aligned well with RISE, “I think we align for a couple of reasons. We both value serving the community and have thoughtful intention to better communities. I think it's important for me to contribute in a way that helps communities thrive. I come from a working-class family, so I understand people’s needs and recognize the importance of organizations to help serve communities that may need more support. It’s important to me that I’m able to contribute in that way.”
She continued, “I would also say this idea of inclusion — nonprofits particularly involved with making an equitable and inclusive society — resonates with me. The ability to contribute in a way that continues to close the gaps that we see in society — racial, economic and educational — and helps close those disparities is a high priority to me.”
“The third thing that aligns with my values are organizations that have leaders who are committed to the work they're doing. This is purpose-driven work. I value being part of a board and being connected to leaders in our community who are passionate about the work they're doing. It gets me excited about the work that I’m able to do with American Family because there's so many strong leaders in this community that you get proximity to by being engaged in these boards. It carries over into my role as a leader and helps me bring those connections I’ve made over to American Family.”
Serving the community, inclusion and passion are some things that matter most to Nyra.
Now think of what matters to you. Consider writing down a list of values that are important to you and look for initiatives in your community that align with yours! This will help you narrow down the right nonprofit fit for you.
Commitment to the cause
While every nonprofit board is different, most require you to complete a few years of commitment. According to our interviewees, nonprofit board terms typically last two or three years. As far as hours dedicated to board work per month, well, that can vary depending on factors like the type of board, your role and committee, time of year and more!
Leana shared how the time commitment varies for her nonprofit board, “We meet monthly throughout the school year with each meeting lasting about two and a half hours. Then, we have board committees which have their own time needs and each board member is required to serve on. You might also need to put in work individually for that committee outside of these meetings. So, time-wise, you can expect to give several hours a month at the least. We also have school events (virtual events during the pandemic), where we want to ensure that there are representatives present. So, it’s a minimum of several hours a month, but it can easily creep up to 10 to 20 hours a month depending on the organization.”
Justin advises that those considering joining a board should look critically at their availability and time before committing to the board.
“You need to manage your time. Look closely at the commitments — you want to make a meaningful contribution, you want to be an active, engaged board member and those time mandates can vary greatly, so you want to find something that really fits with your lifestyle and availability. You want to understand the time commitment so you can really bring value to the organization.”
Fulfill unique board needs
A great aspect about joining a nonprofit board is that all backgrounds and expertise are welcomed — and encouraged!
Leana described the importance of a diverse board. She says, “There are opportunities to learn and contribute on the board. For example, if there’s a teacher and an accountant on the board and we’re discussing curriculum standards and programming, we can rely on the teacher to weigh in to share her expertise from an educational background and the accountant on budgeting for the program. That’s what we try to think about when looking at the overall board makeup. We try to think about the different expertise that different board members can bring like legal, finance, content expertise and so on.”
Do you have a particular skill that can help a nonprofit? Consider reaching out to see how you can best support them.
Leana went on to talk about how creating a diverse board also lines up with American Family’s values, “It really aligns to American Family’s values of diversity and inclusion. If you have a diverse board, you are more likely to have more innovation, more ideas and more diverse perspectives. It's really honoring a commitment to diversity, not just diversity in demographics that we often think of it, but also diversity in terms of professions and skills.”
Some nonprofits will also reserve seats on the board for individuals who have received support from the organization. Justin shares why the YWCA Madison does this and how it impacts the board, “YWCA requires that two board members are former clients. I think that's awesome because it's a great way to ensure that the services and decisions made by the board really consider the needs of the clients. When you have a past client on the board, influencing and sharing their experiences, it’s a surefire way to guarantee that we put the people who we serve first.”
Leader on and off the board
Joining a nonprofit board can be a big responsibility and put you in a leadership role you may not be used to. That might feel a little scary, but it’s also a great opportunity to improve your leadership skills! The role you play on the board can help you serve the community and better your career and personal life.
Leana shared how becoming president of her board changed her, “When I was initially approached to throw my name in the hat, I was a little nervous and reluctant. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I've never been the president of a board before, and that feels like a big responsibility. I don't know if I have the right experience.’ But I was reassured that I could do this and that’d we’d all work together, and it’s been so rewarding. I have the trust and confidence from others to lead, but to also know that I have their partnership, support and commitment, so it really feels like a team effort. It’s also helped me grow professionally in my own leadership development, so while my role has an impact on others, it also has an impact on me.”
An essential skill when volunteering on a nonprofit board is the ability to show humility and empathy. Because as a board member you’re making decisions that could largely affect someone else’s life. Justin shares how his time on the board has helped him confront his privilege and use it as motivation to create change.