Tips For Finding the Right Nonprofit Board for You

Published on March 26, 2015

Serving on a nonprofit organization’s board of directors can be a way to give back to the community, hone professional skills, and create lasting connections. But finding the right match between board member and organization can be tricky.

Finding that fit was the subject of a recent session led by two veterans of nonprofit boards, Judy Maley, LAB ’78, MBA ’84, and Gayle Haller, ’87, at On Board 2015, the second annual conference on nonprofit board service hosted by Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative.

Passion for an organization’s mission is key to success, Maley and Haller said.

“Your passion will drive your engagement,” Maley said. “Also, a board member is an advocate for the organization.”

Maley and Haller met for the first time at SEI’s first On Board Conference in 2014. They teamed up for a talk on joining nonprofit boards and clicked immediately, Haller said. They found they could fill in any knowledge gaps the other had.

“It was really a great partnership,” Haller said.

Although Haller lives in New York and Maley in Chicago, the two women keep in touch by phone and email. They soon discovered they are going through similar stages of life – “extremely similar,” Maley said.

They both were trying to sell houses at the same time, had both lived in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, and Maley’s brother, at one time, worked with Haller’s husband. “It’s like six degrees of separation,” Haller said. “We found every angle we have similarities in.”

They bonded over the way board service helped them reignite their professional lives after their children had grown, and they both relished a return to Booth as mentors.

“Since we’re going through so many of the same stages, it was nice to share the experience of coming back to Booth,” Maley said.

Added Haller: “ We have enjoyed re-engaging with the school. This has been a great avenue for us to meet new people and channel our energy toward something we really believe in.”

Three times Maley and Haller have teamed up at different Booth conferences to lead “Getting On Board: Finding and Thriving on the ‘Right’ Board,” and it has become a favorite for conference attendees.

Haller joined her first board after college, a working committee of the Chicago-area Council Boy Scouts of America Board. Following graduate school, she started her career at Motorola and then had a family. It wasn’t until later that she returned to board service, “in order to give back to causes I was passionate about,” she said. She is past president and honorary board member of The Community Fund of Bronxville, Eastchester, and Tuckahoe, Inc., in New York’s Westchester County, and a member of the board of visitors for the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she got her bachelor’s degree.

Serving as a nonprofit volunteer consultant also helped her get her current job in nonprofit management consulting for the National Executive Service Corps in New York, she said.

Maley, who worked in marketing after graduating from Booth, has been involved in board service since her children were young, but stepped up her involvement after her children left for college. Now she serves on the board of Chicago-based Thresholds, which provides health care and housing for those with mental illness, and she is on the advisory boards of the Chicago after-school program After School Matters, A Night Out, Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative and is a member of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Alumni Association’s executive board.

She said spending the time to find a good fit is important.

“This is something you also want to take your time doing,” Maley said. “It is a process where you want to thoughtfully explore your passions and options because you will be a more productive board member.”

Tips for finding and thriving on the “right” board

  • Know the skill you bring to the board. Good boards have directors who fill a range of expertise and skills, Haller said. That might be in finance, contract law, human resources, fundraising, social media, or something else.

  • Find out about the “give/get” policy. When you join a board, ask how much fundraising is involved, Haller said: “How much do you expect me to give, or how much do you expect me to get?” 

  • Consider the type of board. Some boards mostly fundraise, while others will involve board members in the day-to-day running of the operations. “Research the board you are joining so you can add the most value,” Maley said.

  • Look for opportunities everywhere. “Leverage your networks,” Haller said. “This is no different than finding a job.” Write down whom you know and what boards they are on, she said. If you’re interested in an organization, attend an event, make a donation, or perform a pro bono project.

  • Ask key questions. “Don’t go onto a board blindly, because you’re setting yourself up for disappointment or even failure,” Haller said. Haller said some key questions to ask before you join a board are: What are my fundraising obligations? Can you provide me with financials from the last few years? Other good questions include: How is the board structured? What is my role? What metrics do you use to determine if the organization is successful? Does the organization have directors liability insurance? A good board of directors offers an orientation session for new members or provides them with an orientation packet (including by-laws, annual reports, organization charts, board responsibilities), Haller said.
  • Watch for red flags — A revolving door of executive directors or a lot of vacant seats on a board can be a sign that the board is not working well with the staff, Haller and Maley said.
“Serving on the “right” board can be a rewarding experience”, say Haller and Maley. “Knowing the right questions to ask beforehand will help you make a thoughtful board choice.”—Deborah Ziff