How to Be an Effective Nonprofit Board Member

Do you dream of making a positive change in your community and bettering yourself as a leader? Volunteering on a nonprofit board could be what you’re looking for! It’s a great, hands-on way to make a real difference in your community and grow certain skillsets. There are lots of nonprofits that could use your brain power and time, so finding a nonprofit board to join usually isn’t a challenge.

But what’s the difference between being a good nonprofit board member and a great one? What qualities are needed to drive meaningful change? We spoke with three leaders at American Family Insurance to discover what it takes to be an impactful nonprofit board member and how their time with the board has changed them for the better. Let’s find out if a nonprofit board is a good fit for you!

About Our Featured Board Members and Their Nonprofits

To better understand what qualities are needed to be an outstanding board member, let’s get to know nonprofits, their featured board members and what drew these individuals in to get involved.

First, we spoke with Justin Cruz, American Family Insurance VP of Auto Product Design and Development, who serves on the board for YWCA Madison — a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that focuses on four key areas: housing and shelter, jobs and transportation, race and gender equity and restorative justice. Justin shared how that mission compelled him to get involved.

  1. JUSTIN CRUZ: So I'm on the board of the YWCA Madison. And really what compelled me to get involved with them is just a strong identification with their mission and vision, which is eliminating racism and empowering women. I find that refreshingly bold and inspirational. Racism is such a monumental problem still today, so pervasive with devastating effects, but in so many ways, almost frustratingly at times, little recognized and undersold.

    And this organization has the courage to really state this plainly and transparently and work directly to address it. And women, of course, face such unique challenges within this space and across our communities. And I'm proud of the deep roots that the YWCA has in not just shedding light on these problems but also tackling them.


Later we sat down with Leana Nakielski, American Family Community and Social Impact Director, who serves on a number of nonprofit boards and is active president of the Highland Community School board. Highland is a Milwaukee Public Schools charter school in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area with a mission to enrich and empower children and families to reach their potential and become a force for positive change in the world. Leana shared how and why she’s invested in this nonprofit.

  1. LEANA NAKIELSKI: I actually serve on several nonprofit boards but I'm going to speak about Highland Community School. It's the board that I've been on for several years. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. And they are a charter school with the Milwaukee Public School System in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

    And as far as what compelled me to join the board, well, for me it's both a personal and professional mission. Personally, I have children who attend there. I also worked at Highland previously. And professionally it aligns with the work that I do at American Family in terms of supporting education and talent-pipeline partnerships to really build our future workforce.


Our final interviewee was Nyra Jordan, American Family Social Impact Director, who also splits her time among different nonprofit boards. She spoke with us in particular about RISE Wisconsin, which provides early childhood and mental health services to all ages and families in the Dane County area. Nyra originally got involved with Center for Families which later merged with RISE Wisconsin. She shared how American Family originally introduced her to volunteering on boards:

“I got involved in nonprofit work through our American Family United Way rally,” said Nyra. “During that campaign, we had leaders from different organizations come in and talk about their mission, the services they offer and how they impact the community. It was during that rally I became really interested and asked to learn more about getting involved. In addition to donating, they mentioned they were looking for someone to join their board.”

Nyra continued, “What I've appreciated about being on a board is not only the ability to serve the organization and to give back to the community, but I've found it to be really fulfilling to leverage my skills. My background is in strategy planning and organization effectiveness, and what I’ve found is because so many nonprofits are strapped for resources, I’ve been able to fill that need for these organization using my strengths.”

Nyra Jordan, pictured above, is proud to serve on multiple boards, including RISE Wisconsin

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.”

Show humility

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.

  1. JUSTIN CRUZ: You know, there's so many different aspects that I think are really valuable for me personally, but probably most of all is just the tremendous sense of fulfillment that you get knowing your efforts are simply making other lives better-- the marginalized, disadvantaged in our community that in so many ways fall through the cracks, so to speak, in our systems. In the case of the YWCA, that might be a homeless child. That might be someone suffering from domestic abuse, or maybe someone working to improve their own lives through better job training. No better feeling than just simply knowing you're making a difference.


Nyra also believes that empathy plays a large role in understanding intricate and multifaceted issues. “Volunteering helps open your eyes to the real complex issues that communities face,” said Nyra.“Oftentimes, you hear about a situation and go, ‘Why don’t they just do this?’ or ‘Why can’t this person just do that?’. I think being part of these organizations really pulls you into a real conversation on understanding the systematic issues in place and shows you how it’s not that easy. It helps build that deeper empathy about what people may be going through that you just don't think about because your family isn't experiencing it. It helps build that empathy for your neighbors and community.

Advocate for the mission

While it may not be a formal role of being on the board, Justin believes being an advocate may be one of the most important aspects of the position.

The biggest unwritten role of a board member is to be a vocal and visible advocate out in the community,” said Justin. “Work with your networks, leverage your personal and professional influence to bring awareness about the organization and how they serve the community. Advocacy, in many ways, is an even larger portion of the role of the board.

Tip
Be ready to become a champion for your nonprofit

"Your responsibilities don't start and stop within that boardroom — it's really about everything you do outside of it to bring value to that organization.” – Justin Cruz


Agility in times of change

Board members are often faced with obstacles — raising money, budgeting, sourcing, etc. — but some obstacles can come as a surprise. When the global pandemic hit, these nonprofit boards had to work swiftly and efficiently to keep their missions safe and afloat. And while there are many implications with a global pandemic, these board members found the positive during times of uncertainty.

“Like everything in life since the pandemic, it's been challenging for us. We have a lot of different stakeholders to be mindful about with the school — students, staff of all different ages and vulnerabilities, parents and community partners or vendors — so it’s required a great deal of flexibility, patience, compassion and empathy,” said Leana, “But, more than anything it's also really unified our community. People have come forward to support each other in a way that maybe they didn't even know was possible before.”

What are the Benefits of Joining a Nonprofit Board?

While your skills may be needed to benefit the nonprofit and your community, being a board member can do some good for you, too! Take it from Justin who shared how his time on the board has given him a strong sense of purpose.

  1. JUSTIN CRUZ: I've been on the board with the Y for about three years. And over that time, a lot of the ways I've changed have simply been eye-opening. And one of the most profound for me is being aware-- made aware of my privilege in this world. The relationship between the board members and not so much the organization, but the community that it serves, creates this juxtaposition, in a sense, of our lives versus their lives. And you just can't help but feel a sense of humility, and sometimes even bordering on guilt, recognizing the blessings that some of us are afforded in this world, where others are not. And on the plus side, that's a powerful inspiration to continue to work for change.


Leana shared how being involved with a nonprofit board also helps her live life to the fullest and fills her with pride.

  1. LEANA NAKIELSKI: The most rewarding part of being on a board is having an impact. It's knowing that we have this one life to live and what we do every day with every minute and every hour, for me, it's important to know that how I use my time is contributing to something that's greater than myself that is contributing to driving positive change in our community. And so if I can lend any of my expertise, any of my sweat equity, experience in just being present to advise on a nonprofit board, I know that that impacts, in the case of Highland Community School, over 400 children and their families in our communities. So it's very rewarding to know that we can put our energies together to drive greater change.

Get Involved

Eager to find a nonprofit board that’s right for you? That’s great! If you’re interested, Nyra’s advice is to take the first step. “Find an organization that’s aligned to what you're passionate about or an area of interest to you. Reach out to the organization and stay connected with them — even if they're not looking for board members at that time. Anytime you can build a relationship with a nonprofit and these incredible organizations that are doing so much good in our community is a really powerful thing.”

Remember, it’s not just about getting involved, it’s about how you do it, too! When you put in the work and give it your all, there’s no limit to what you can do.

Support for Your Social Impact Dreams

Looking for even more ways to support others in your community? Check out more resources and tools to fulfill your social impact dreams.


How would you rate this article?

Related Topics: Personal Development , Community , Career