An Executive’s Guide to Joining a Nonprofit Board

By: Mark Winter

As a communications and business counselor, I’m often asked by our clients, “Should I join a nonprofit board?”

The answer is quite often a yes, but I am always quick to share with them that to do it right, it will take a lot of time…and often resources.

While the opportunities are great and the relationships forged can have a positive impact on your professional and personal life, you must be willing to put in the work.

Case in point: I was recently invited to serve on the board of The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW), a nonprofit organization that stabilizes and empowers Michigan families in an effort to keep them healthy, safe and warm.   I was humbled to be asked to join the board and take on responsibility very seriously.

But this opportunity didn’t just fall in my lap – this is the third board that I have been a part of and each time I have given much more than asked.

Having been fortunate enough to support the growth of several organizations in my career – including a term as President of EO Detroit – I have noticed a wide variation in motivation for why people join boards, as well as what is expected of them.

To that end, here is a simple guide to joining a nonprofit board:

Create Value

There is significant PR value to serving on a nonprofit board. People perceive you to be a thought leader through your ability to lead and work with likeminded peers of similar business standing.

More importantly, the position puts you on a stage – allowing you to showcase the unique skill sets and talents within your organization. Having that visibility to potential clients can put your company at the top of the call list in the event your particular services are ever needed.

However, it is important that you don’t go into these situations with a sales pitch. Through my own board seats, I received business not by selling, but by showcasing what my team does best with projects that benefitted the nonprofit.

With EO Detroit, for example, Identity executed graphic design work, developed a custom directory and used our creativity to come up with ideas that furthered the organization’s initiatives. These projects got noticed, and led to new and valuable opportunities for the agency.

Foster Long-Term Relationships

If you want to work with the right people, you have to know where they are. While technology and the speed of information have disrupted virtually every aspect of marketing, the relationship side of communications and business strategy still adheres to several longstanding best practices.

There is a very purposeful effort in how people go about joining nonprofit boards – an approach that is not just altruistic, but professionally and philanthropically integrated. Automotive suppliers, for instance, have been strategically joining boards for decades. If they know an executive in, say, the Big Three is on a certain nonprofit board, they will try to get on that board, grow their relationship with them and write the organization big checks in order to get their business.

I’m a huge fan of doing as much research as possible about the organizations I’m joining, so I know what I’m getting into well before I accept the position. Today, there are a number of online tools available for you to conduct this research ahead of time, especially to find out the organization’s mission, history, core values and who your fellow board members will be. For example, using LinkedIn’s search features to identify local executives who list board positions on their profiles is a quick and easy way to gather some valuable intelligence.

The relationships I’ve started and grown during my time as a nonprofit board member helped me propel my company to where it is today.

Put in the Effort

Joining a nonprofit board isn’t just about padding your resume or making yourself or your company look good – there is a lot of good that can be done in your position if you’re willing to put in the work.

The biggest mistake a board member can make is thinking their position is a short-term play. I’ve had several negative experiences with really bad board members that I will never forget, and have even had to fire people who ran companies much bigger than mine, because they abused their position or failed to stay active.

It takes time to build relationships and show people the impact of your organization. You have to start small, work your way up, and exercise your philanthropic muscle to put yourself in a position to move to bigger, more prestigious nonprofits. The visibility you achieve as a nonprofit board member doesn’t simply come from the checks you write, but from the effort you put in to help the organization thrive.

Raising money is also a huge part of being in a nonprofit, and many expect a certain amount each year. But if you’re not able to reach your target, or lack the skill needed to raise large funds, you can still offer services that meet or exceed the remaining balance. As long as you show that you care, and do everything you can to help your nonprofit grow, you will have good standing in the organization.

Support Others in Your Company

Contrary to popular belief, nonprofit board positions aren’t just for CEOs and high-ranking executives (although they are the most courted) – but also people responsible for creating relationships and business opportunities in your company.

By helping to elevate these people to strategically chosen nonprofit board positions, and investing both money and resources into their endeavor, you will see several benefits to company in the long-run – so long as the effort is put in.

Joining a board is a rewarding, albeit challenging, assignment. When done right, it allows you to balance your professional career with giving back in an incredibly meaningful way.