In addition, the organization may have sought you out for your particular expertise, hoping to benefit from those skills. If you have a financial background, for example, you may expect to be asked to join the finance committee, Sebastian says. And while you may have hoped to do something removed from your day job, that may not be the first order of business.
Still another question to answer before you get involved with a nonprofit board is how much time is expected for you to commit—and that can vary from attending a few meetings each year to a much more hands-on role in the group’s operations, says LoFrumento, who has led and served on several nonprofit boards over the past 20 years. And while some groups have specified terms of service for board members, others may ask for a more open-ended commitment.
Take your time deciding
“People get invited to join a board, and they approach it like a job offer—they think they have to answer yes or no,” Sebastian says. “But you have a say in the process.” Don’t talk just with the CEO or the board chair, she suggests. Also meet with other board members, and assess the leadership of the group, its management and governance, and the financials. Often a nonprofit will operate in the red or very close to it, and while that may be a perfect fit if you enjoy helping organizations with significant challenges, others may want to join a more stable operation. “Make your decision when you have sufficient information,” Sebastian says.
Consider the culture
As a board member, you’ll be part of the fabric of the organization, and you need to understand its dynamics. It may be a venerable group that has been doing the same work for years—or it could be new, with an entrepreneurial feeling. Its founder may be involved and make most of the decisions, leaving little room for your input. “You want to be comfortable and feel that you’ll have an impact,” Sebastian says. You may also need to check with your employer to make sure your service as a board member won’t pose any conflict.
“The kind of board I want to be a part of and that I want to lead,” says LoFrumento, “is one that appreciates every single person on the board; that appreciates their donation level, their input and their expertise; that keeps them informed about what the organization is doing and the impact of their dollars; and that thanks them for everything they do.”
If you know what you’re getting into and you make the right choice, being on a board can be incredibly rewarding, says Sebastian, who serves as a board member for several organizations. But she notes that it is much easier to say no from the start or take your time in deciding whether to proceed than it is to walk away after you’ve already joined, and that as busy as you undoubtedly are, you want to make sure there’s a good fit. “After all,” she says, “this is your free time that you’re talking about.”