Why young professionals should consider board service

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Board members for the Houston-based nonprofit Knowbility. Photo via Schipulites (Flickr/Creative Commons).

By Amy Potthast.

Recently Dania Toscano Miwa blogged about why nonprofits need young people on their boards.

She points out that what they may lack in financial power (some boards require a minimum financial donation from board members), young people make up for with networks. And she has a point.

Teaming a passionate Millennial board member with a development or marketing person could help the organization:

  • move its outreach in new directions
  • raise awareness about the organization and its cause among a new generation, and
  • guide the organization in making decisions that work for a younger constituent base.
What’s in it for you?

The benefits run both ways. Board service is a unique form of volunteering that offers young people opportunities to grow as leaders and as professionals.

Digital natives who are familiar with social networking, get a chance to learn how to apply their unique perspectives to further causes they care deeply about.

Early in their careers, Millennials who serve on boards get to glimpse the business and legal sides of nonprofit organizations — sure to increase their savvy as they further their careers.

Finally, boards consist of people working at businesses and organizations across fields, sector, issue, and role. Often, other board members will be more established in their careers and can play formal or informal mentoring roles for younger board members.

The fine print

Before you join a board, it’s crucial to learn more about the commitment, which is similar to an intense, often long-term volunteer experience that brings with it legal responsibilities, and often (but not always) the expectation of a minimum financial contribution. While serving on a board is great professional experience, you should sign on fully aware of the commitment in your time and resources, and 100 percent dedicated to the organization and its mission.

Resources

One way to learn more about the obligations and joys of board service is to attend a board service workshop in your area (for example, the United Way, a local foundation, or an association of nonprofits may offer training to new or potential board members). At the very least, take this interactive course from Compass Point to learn the basics. Some boards offer training to its new members.

To locate opportunities to serve on a board, you could volunteer first to serve on the committee of a board, get to know the organization better, and put your name in the hat when a board opening occurs. Alternately, you could search for board service opportunities through word of mouth, search volunteer listings on sites like Idealist.org, and/or call the local United Way or association of nonprofits in your area to see if they keep a list of organizations in need of board members.

Learn more about serving on a board as a way to strengthen your candidacy for a nonprofit job in Chapter Five of the free online book The Idealist Guides to Nonprofit Careers.

Do you serve on a board?

If so, what do you give and what do you get from the experience?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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Career Corner: What Board Service Looks Like

From Meg Busse.

Before my first board meeting, this is what I pictured:

  • Big names from big organizations planning fancy fundraising galas
  • Lots of Motions, Seconds, Abstentions, and Calls to Order
  • Long board tables with tall leather chairs, a la The Apprentice
  • Older wealthy folks writing substantial checks
  • Networking, schmoozing, and hobnobbing

You probably won't have meetings here. (From Stuart Chalmers / Creative Commons)

So a few years ago, when I was invited to join a board after volunteering with an organization for a while, I was really nervous before the first meeting. I put on my version of what I though folks might wear to The Apprentice, brought my red leather padfolio for notes and to carry printouts of budget, and had polished up on Roberts Rules of Order and was ready to Second. So when I got to the meeting and the four or five other board members were all sitting around a bar table in jeans, some scrounging for pens or paper, and all laughing, catching up, and having a great time, I knew my assumptions about board meetings were way off.

Not only was my perception off about what board service looks like, so was my understanding of how much fun it could be and how essential it was to my professional development.

What boards look like and how much fun they are is entirely subjective — depends on the board, the current members, the particular meeting, and the size and type of organization. However, the importance of board service to professional development is a bit more constant.

There is a great new resource for providing information about board service. It’s called Board Life Matters and it’s so new that some pages are still in development. But definitely check out the resources page and the blog — you’ll find great stories and tips for the how, what and why of board service.

Another great resources is in Chapter Five of The Idealist Guides to Nonprofit Careers. There’s a whole section about how board service can make you a stronger candidate for a nonprofit job, complete with a list of additional websites to visit.

But if you’re looking for a quick list of reasons to join a board, I figured I’d offer up my top five professional development benefits of board service:

  • Networking: Because boards are often composed of passionate, committed people from different geographic, professional, and personal arenas, my favorite benefit of board service is the people. Board service can definitely be a way to strengthen your network, but it goes way beyond just collecting contacts and connections—the folks I’ve met on boards are some of my closest friends.
  • Skill development: I am constantly challenged in my current job, but board service allows me to flesh out and expand my skill set. For example, I don’t do much event planning in my job, but through the board of YNPN National, I’m coordinating the 2010 Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Leaders Conference in Denver with a team of amazing people.
  • New ideas: This is true of any new opportunity, but through board service, I get to hear about folks’ professional and personal projects, as well as learn from them while working together on board projects. Case in point, the chair of the local board I’m on is involved with the Leftbank Project, “the commercial development of a Portland landmark with a community of mission-driven tenants.” How cool is that? So because of this board, I’ve been able to hear about this project as it develops.
  • Impact: As a young professional, it just doesn’t get old to see decisions I help make, the committees I chair, and strategies I develop have a tangible impact on an entire organization.
  • Perspective: Board service has provided me an opportunity to shape the long-term strategy and direction of an organization. This is an incredibly valuable perspective for any employee to bring to a project, position, or sector.

I’ve served on four boards so far, for organizations that range from grassroots and local to city-wide advisory to national-level networking. On each, I’ve met amazing people, had an impressive amount of fun, developed my professional and personal skills, and found board service to be yet another way to make a lasting impact on the community.

And for the record, I’ve not been to a meeting that was even remotely like The Apprentice board room. Yet.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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