June 12, 2015 Articles

A Strategic Road Map to Joining a Nonprofit Board

By Sabrina C. Beavens

Assessing my business development activities last year, I noticed that at some point all of my volunteer time had shifted to professional associations. I was in leadership positions in the ABA Section of Litigation, the New Hampshire Federal Bar Association, and the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association. In addition, I was an active member in several other associations. But I was not involved in any community activities. I was not unhappy, but I missed serving my community and the fulfillment that it provides. I was also concerned that I was limiting my ability to develop business by networking only with lawyers. As a result, I set out to join a nonprofit board.

I hope that my journey to achieve this goal will inspire you to look at your own community and find a nonprofit that both fits your interests and builds your book of business.

Gather the Resources Available in Your Community
Even though I knew I wanted to join a board, self-doubt kept creeping into my mind. What nonlegal skills did I have to offer a nonprofit board? Do I need to be well-connected to be offered a board position? Fortunately, my timing coincided with a relatively new program run by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits called the Hoffman-Haas Fellowship. This program “strive[s] to populate NH nonprofit boards with inspired, prepared and ready-to-engage new leaders who can bring a solid grounding in board essentials and serve as an infusion of energy for existing boards.” I was accepted as a 2014 Fellow.

The six-month training program included seminars, individual mentoring, and the opportunity to connect with other business leaders interested in joining a nonprofit board. The two seminars that had the biggest impact on me were “Fearless Fundraising” by Chuck Loring and “Governance as Leadership” by Cathy Trower.

Admittedly, I started out my journey thinking, “I do not want to be on the fundraising committee. I avoid it if I can in my practice, and I do not enjoy asking my lawyer friends for money for association activities.” But here is the good news. Fundraising comes in many different shapes and sizes. If making calls from your desk is not your style, there are other ways to fundraise. Chuck Loring opened my eyes to the fact that fundraising is every board member’s responsibility. He described how fundraising has changed in recent years and discussed what it takes to build a “culture of fundraising” on a board. He provided a process for board members to follow—from cultivation to solicitation to stewardship. He explained that donors want acknowledgement, confirmation that their gifts have been put to work, and information about what effect the gifts have had. Loring challenged us to ask whether fundraising events are having the intended impact. Are the events making money or at least cultivating donors? Or are they continuing because the organization has had the event for the last 25 years? Loring’s seminar gave me the confidence that I could be an effective fundraiser as a board member.

One area of board service I thought I understood was governance. After all, I could recite in my sleep the list of fiduciary duties board members owe to a company. Cathy Trower helped me understand that there is another meaning to governance in relation to board leadership. She knew that the best nonprofit boards do five things well: “1) demonstrate allegiance to the mission; 2) think independently but govern collectively; 3) elevate the organization’s interests above self-interest; 4) discern, define, deliberate, and decide issues of consequence to the organization; and 5) are self-aware and committed to continuous improvement.”

Trower described three modes of governance. Mode 1 is fiduciary governance. Mode 2 is strategic governance. And mode 3 is generative governance. Board members should wear “tri-focals” and analyze issues in all three modes. Trower’s seminar taught me that board service is much more than going through the agenda and addressing the current issues of the organization. Governance requires boards to consider how they are analyzing issues and to reflect on how the board itself is functioning. Could board meetings be run more efficiently? Is receiving a committee status report necessary if reports were circulated before the meeting? Could that time be put to better use? After leaving Trower’s seminar, I understood that governance goes far beyond fiduciary duties.

Needless to say, the Hoffman-Haas Fellowship program gave me a tremendous foundation to build on. Anyone considering board service—or even those who have served on boards in the past (many of my co-fellows were long-time board members)—should investigate whether his or her community offers a similar program or training. If not, many resources are available for self-study, including publications by Chuck Loring and Cathy Trower.

Find a Mentor
As part of the Hoffman-Haas program, I was assigned a mentor, Retired Major General Ken Clark from the New Hampshire Air National Guard. General Clark proved to be a tremendous resource. He gave me a different view of board service from the seminars. I asked General Clark how he came to be the chairman of the board of trustees for a local bank, when his background was not finance related. General Clark explained that one of the biggest assets he brings to board service is the ability to lead the board. He may not have the same level of knowledge as another board member at the bank who has worked in finance, but he is a distinguished leader, which carries over into the boardroom. Through my conversations with General Clark, I realized that I needed to have a broader view of the value that I could contribute to organizations, including those for which I may not have specialized knowledge, or past experience. The ability to have candid, one-on-one conversations with General Clark continues to be invaluable, just as it would be with a professional mentor. I encourage all new board members to seek a mentor.

Identify the Organization That Suits You
At first, I assumed that my board service would involve the types of organizations I had volunteered for in the past. However, during my training I began to think about organizations in other areas, such as the arts and culture. Because of my conversations with General Clark, I may consider a position on a museum board or a musical festival board in the future, even though I do not have a degree or working experience in the arts. Thinking about what type of organization you want to work with will narrow your search and provide a more rewarding experience as a board member later.

Find an Opportunity
Once you start looking, you will be surprised to learn how many boards are looking for new members. I found that word of mouth and contacting organizations directly provided many leads. Once you open the door, you will be surprised at how many people in your existing business network are currently serving on a board and may have information or contacts to help you find a board position. I met the executive director of Zebra Crossings, my first board appointment, at a leadership training seminar. She briefly described her organization during the introductions at the seminar. When I got home that night, I looked at the website and was impressed by the mission of the organization, a nonprofit that provides a broad range of camping, recreational, and outdoor programs throughout the year for children with chronic health conditions. I reached out to the executive director and discovered that Zebra Crossings was actively seeking to grow its board. Board positions are like any other opportunity in life. You must do your homework and actively pursue opportunities to obtain a position.

Make a Good First Impression
My path to the board of Zebra Crossings started with a board application. I took my time completing the application and provided thoughtful responses. I selected references who would be the best to talk about me as a potential board member. I prepared for my board interview by reading Zebra Crossings’ website and newsletters. I rehearsed responses to probable questions such as why I was interested in Zebra Crossings and what value I thought I could deliver as a board member. I never assumed that because Zebra Crossings is a young organization, I should treat the process informally. During the interview, I also made sure I listened to the board member’s description of Zebra Crossings and asked follow-up questions. I am grateful that the board unanimously voted me in as a member.

One of Zebra Crossings’ key fundraisers was scheduled before my first board meeting. Even though I had not met all of the board members and still had a lot to learn about the organization, I reached out to my network to encourage attendance at the event or at least a donation. I also started talking to my business contacts about Zebra Crossings. One of my banking contacts immediately offered a sponsorship. Not only did these efforts affirm to my fellow board members that I was already committed to the organization, it also felt good to contribute immediately. Even though board service is a volunteer activity, it requires the same professionalism and commitment as practicing law. Never assume your application is going to be rubber stamped, and be prepared to contribute from day one.

Reap the Great Rewards
By now, it should be clear that I am so glad I made the time to follow through with my plan to add balance back to my volunteer activities by joining a nonprofit board. The solidifying moment for me was hearing two little girls speak at Zebra Crossings’ recent fundraising event about how their participation in our program has changed their lives. They talked about the friendships they have made with children with similar health conditions, and about having more confidence and courage in their daily lives. The parents of a child in the program also shared what it means to have a safe place for their child to go to camp and the noticeable change it made for their family. I was so proud of those girls that night, and I was proud to be on the board of such a wonderful organization.

This journey has also opened new avenues for business development. I have met several people I may not have crossed paths with had I continued to limit my networking to legal associations. I meet others at every new event.

I hope that you are now inspired to start your own journey to your first board position, or perhaps to join a new board.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, board membership, nonprofits, community service, professional development, mentoring, leadership, governance, fundraising


Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).