Updated November 2016 — Whether you have been charitably inclined for years or have just recently been asked to volunteer your services on a nonprofit board, sharing your experience and connections with a nonprofit organization can be extremely fulfilling. But if you have multiple requests for your time and only so much to give, deciding which board is best for your time and talents is an important choice. A Wells Fargo Philanthropic Services specialist can help you make these decisions.
Decide which nonprofit board to serve on
Sandra Shell, Senior Regional Fiduciary Manager with Wells Fargo Philanthropic Services, shares that all boards need individuals that have certain skills, from financial to legal. "Typically, they will try to organize a board that has a combination of those skills," she says. However, Shell adds, the first mark of a good board member is one who is enthusiastic about the work that the nonprofit does. "The most effective board members are the ones with a passion for the organization or the work they do."
Ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience of being a nonprofit board member. Involving yourself in an organization that you truly care about makes the whole experience of being a board member that much richer. Dan Prebish, Director, Life Event Services with Wells Fargo Advisors, encourages board members to get in on the ground floor and participate in activities that are a part of an organization's core mission.
Know what board membership requires
Formal board orientation is an area that is often overlooked by many nonprofit boards. According to "Giving More Than Money," a study that Wells Fargo Private Bank's Philanthropic Services group and BoardSource conducted in the fall of 2014 to understand nonprofit board member experience, nearly 50 percent of respondents indicated that they did not participate in a strong board orientation process. Before you sign on, find out what support is available to you as a new member.
Not being aware of the requirements and expectations for board members can create dissatisfaction and risk — both for the board and for the organization. It's important that you learn everything, from the time commitment to donation amount. Some boards rely on their members to help with fundraising, while others have professional development staffs that are largely tasked with securing donations. There may be the expectation that a board member will give a donation at a leadership level. Prospective board members will be asked to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. In addition, be prepared to do more than just go to meetings once a month or quarter.
Like any business, nonprofits have to manage operating and legal requirements and it's the board's job to oversee these. A larger organization may have a large professional staff, so that organization's board may play more of an oversight or strategic role, whereas a smaller charity may require more day-to-day involvement. "The one key thing is that the board is there to provide advice and counsel to the executive director of the organization," says Prebish. "The board doesn't have operating responsibility — the executive director does that — but the board's there to provide that broader guidance."
Prebish encourages board members to remember that the nonprofit staff doesn't work for them. "You have to really respect the fact that the employees of a nonprofit organization already have demanding jobs, so it's really important to say 'My job as a board member is to support the staff, help them, and do what I can to make their lives easier.' You don't want to ever impose on the staff of the organization by giving them additional tasks."
Shell notes that prospective board members need to be prepared to serve a two- to three-year term, which may be renewed for an additional two to three years. She adds that if you have been serving on a board for more than 10 years, "it's potentially time for you to get out, because you start to get too close and your objectivity starts to dissipate." She also recommends when you're thinking about serving on a board to ask about the interaction between the other board members. "If they're confrontational with each other, that's not a very productive environment."
Take care of yourself as a board member
Prebish finds that some prospective board members may worry about the liability involved with serving on a nonprofit board. He says that there are protections in both state and federal law that shield nonprofit volunteers, and that these would often extend to board members as well. "These are not absolute," he notes, "but I would say that if anyone had concerns he or she should talk to their personal attorney and ask how much protection these statutes give."
And if you agree to serve and then find yourself unable to fulfill your commitment? Shell says most people will try to complete at least one term. But if the situation is untenable, "the best thing to do is give your notice of resignation to the board chair and be honest about why you're resigning."