By G. A. Finch
You are at the upper echelon of your company or firm and have family demands making you crazy busy, and, suddenly, you are asked to join a non-profit board. Who needs it? You do, and non-profits need you. Here is why.
I have had the opportunity to sit on a dozen boards during the last 25 years. Joining a non-profit board does several things for you. It gives you board room experience so that you understand the organizational dynamics and etiquette of a board of directors. It gives you a chance to develop collaborative, teamwork skills with a set of usually highly accomplished peers. It gives you an opportunity to hone small group conversational and presentation skills. It gives you visibility.
If you do not already have the experience and knowledge of dealing with budgets, strategic plans, revenue generation, management performance evaluations and public relations issues, you will likely be exposed to them sitting on a non-profit board. It gives you access to interesting people who you otherwise ordinarily would not meet, thus expanding your network. It gives you visibility. It gives you perspectives outside of the silo of your company or industry. It facilitates your contributing to a mission or cause outside your own narrow circle.
You invariably will enjoy some perks, depending on the type of organization, such as gifts of art, books or food, free VIP tickets to performances, retreats in posh or interesting locales and so on.
Things to Consider
When you are thinking about joining a board you should do your due diligence to ascertain whether a) the board has competent, efficient leadership, b) there is adequate liability insurance and/or indemnities available to protect board members, c) there is a conflict of interest policy, d) the financial condition of the organization is relatively stable and manageable, and e) there is a financial contribution expectation or solicitation expectation.
Enjoy Board to Avoid Being Bored
It is important to only join boards of organizations whose missions make you feel enthusiastic and energized. The board’s mission should reflect your values and world view. If you are very conservative, maybe joining the ACLU board is not such a good idea. You don’t want to be slogging through meetings and conference calls for an organization about which you aren’t excited and lack enthusiasm.
A Nice Feather in Your Cap
The organization Boardroom Bound, which aims to diversify for-profit corporate boards, encourages its executive members to get meaningful non-profit board experience. Prestigious leadership programs like the competitive Leadership Greater Chicago Fellows won’t usually even consider a candidate without demonstrated civic participation.
Some senior executives designate their subordinates to serve on boards in their stead. This is a way for companies to “groom” their up-and-coming fast track executive stars. Similarly, as a goodwill gesture, when I do not have the time or interest to serve on a board, I usually offer to find a suitable candidate.
I have discussed with many executives the merits of serving on non-profits as preparation to serve on for-profit boards, and the consensus was that the experience is relevant and has value.
Look around, leaders in your community or profession serve on non-profit boards.
Is it permissible to develop a relationship for business purposes outside of the non-profit? Absolutely, it is fine when seeking the relationship can benefit the other board member and it is done in a low key, graceful way. For example, you may have resources, recommendations, contacts, or services that you can offer the board member. You won’t know whether you can be of help unless you spend time getting to know the person outside of the board meeting. So breakfasts, lunches, coffees, sporting and cultural events are good vehicles to learn about the other board member’s business and interests. Don’t be afraid invite a board member to meet. Seek to understand and to help first. It is okay to ask for help, but you will be more effective when you develop the relationship first while offering to be of help.
Although you may be flattered to be asked to join a board, it is better to say no than to perform poorly. It is best to limit yourself to no more than two to three at a time, so that you can give 110% effort and not burn yourself out. You do not want to join a board and miss half of the meetings as you will lose credibility.
Do Gooder Makes Good
When all is said and done, non-profit board experience can only make you a better executive; it is an investment in both the non-profit and yourself. You “do good” and help yourself at the same time. Go for it.
G.A. Finch is a senior partner at a Chicago law firm. He frequently advises organizations and executives on their employment contracts, compensation and severance matters. A version of this article appeared in his blog at www.yourexecutivelife.com. Mr. Finch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.