Why you should join a nonprofit board to advance your career

Posted by: Alisha Sedor, Founder

When asked about my professional background and how I developed the skills I have today, I almost always reference the nonprofit boards I've served on. I currently serve on the board of The Doula Project, and in the past have held positions with The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, The Professional Student Coalition for Reproductive Justice, and The South Dakota Advocacy Network for Women.

Not only was I working for causes I loved and creating invaluable network connections, but I also learned a myriad of skills that have been incorporated into my professional career. Boards are often overlooked as both volunteer opportunities and skill building avenues for those early in their professional path, and thus I'm going to make a case here for why you should join a board if you want to advance your career. 

Running Effective Meetings

Boards generally utilize Robert's Rules or Consensus to give structure to board proceedings. Robert's Rules is great at creating a state of order, clear documentation, time-keeping, and driving to decisions. Experience with it gives you a good sense of how to run a meeting with a big group effectively and keep conversations on the rails. Especially when people are passionate about a topic, it's easy to end up in the weeds or at a stalemate. Skills learned via a Robert's Rules driven board can help you navigate those situations.

Consensus is all about moving moving an idea around the group and continually modifying it until every member comes to a place of agreement. This is a really great skill to apply to brainstorming and collaborative office environments - it's a way to build on an idea, hear all voices, but also move back to an ultimate conclusion.

If you can gain exposure to both of these models via board service, you become extremely effective at determining what meetings need more of which approach and ensure that you're more judicious with everyone's time.

Hiring and Interviewing

Boards are generally responsible for recruiting, hiring, and on-boarding their own members. Most nonprofit boards also have term limits of some sort, which means there's a constant need for new membership. The first step is identifying the skill sets that you need to create a well-rounded board, which translates to organizational design in the business world.

For an effective board, you need people who are familiar with the work of the organization, but also expertise in other areas that will help drive the organization's work forward and provide effective governance. Perhaps in the next few years a large marketing campaign is in the works, and recruiting someone with a marketing background would be helpful, or your organization has grown significantly and needs to reorganize its finances, such that an accountant on the board would be helpful. Generally, diversity of perspectives is extremely important to a healthy board. All of these needs are true of building effective teams for in the business world as well.

When recruiting new candidates for a board, you also learn how to utilize your network to recruit potential candidates. In other words, lots of networking practice! This is great for your personal growth in developing and maintaining relationships, and the skills are quite similar to utilizing your network for your own job search which is fantastic practice.

Having Uncomfortable Conversations

One of the core responsibilities of most nonprofit boards is the fiscal health of the organization, otherwise known as fundraising. Fundraising is all about asking for things you need and having uncomfortable conversations.

Asking for money on behalf of an organization is a little easier than asking for things for yourself, but you can absolutely apply the skills you practice to your needs in the workplace in the future. You get lots of "no's" which builds resilience and the recognition that sometimes a no isn't about you (or even the organization), so sometimes you just have to keep asking. Money is also just inherently awkward for most people to talk about, so you really work those muscles.

Program design and development

Depending on the structure of the board and the organization, you may not have staff that executes on projects. Board members of working boards often engage directly in program design and development. Through this, you practice delegation, developing or advising on a program, and assisting with implementation via things like donor meetings, speaking at events, and even mentoring staff or constituents. Boards often examine the output of programs and assess their efficacy. This is directly applicable to doing the same in your day job.

These were some of the highlights, but in addition members of boards practice public speaking, driving to decisions, budgeting, and a host of other skills. So, I recommend taking a look at organizations you care about to see if they have open opportunities on their boards, giving your day-gig a heads up that you're looking to serve on a board, and sending out some applications. Even if you're more green in your career, lots of boards are looking for a variety of members so you don't have to be "fancy and important" to serve. You'll benefit greatly and also make a difference in the world by supporting the great work of a cause you care about.

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