4 ways being a nonprofit board member can help your career

Dan will be answering your questions about how to join a nonprofit board Wednesday, September 4th at 1pm ET. Learn more here!

For many people, being a board member conjures up images of wealthy people writing checks and hosting fundraisers. While supporting the financial well being of a nonprofit is certainly part of a board member’s responsibility, there is a range of roles that board members can play and plenty of opportunities for people to volunteer their time and talent to support an organization they love.

This month I celebrate my one-year anniversary as a member of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network National Board.  I joined the YNPN Board because I understand the importance of supporting and cultivating the next generation of nonprofit leaders, which will help ensure the sustainability of the sector in the long-term.

As a result of my pro bono work with YNPN’s National Director in the months prior to joining the board, I felt excited for this opportunity not only to give back by sharing my expertise, but also to gain new skills.  This first anniversary has me thinking about some of what I have learned in the last year from this experience. I thought that it would be worthwhile to share a few specific ways that my board service has helped my career and how it might help yours, too:

Expand your network 

A big responsibility of being on a board is raising awareness and funds for the organization. As a result, I have had the opportunity to connect with supporters from a variety of places.

For example, in the last year, I have come into direct contact with officials from well-known foundations, many leaders and members of YNPN chapters from across the country, some of the generous sponsors of our National Leaders Conference, and some of our strategic partners.  By connecting with all of these people, I can get their assistance in pushing YNPN forward, but I also have the opportunity to deepen our relationship in the future.  Since first being introduced to the writings of Keith Ferrazzi and his colleagues at Ferrazzi Greenlight, I have made it my business to build my network before I need it, so that it’s vital and ready whenever I need to call upon people in it; this strategy allows me to have greater long-term reach in my personal and professional lives.

Raise your profile in your organization and profession

By being on a board, I not only expanded my network but I also picked up new skills, ideas, and opportunities for my full-time work.

Just talking about some of the work I have been doing on the YNPN National Board has led to some interesting conversations at work and (I hope) displayed my commitment to building a long and successful career in the non-profit sector. Additionally, having direct board experience has definitely rounded out my approach to dealing with the members of the I-House Board of Trustees in all areas.

Strengthen project and team management skills 

If you join a board, chances are you’ll join a committee (or a few) which means you’ll have to learn quickly how to manage projects and teams in order to help move the organization forward.

Personally, I have had to step up my game when it comes to project and team management, especially because we do the bulk of our work remotely. Managing your work as part of a team and assuring that the team moves forward is hard enough when done face-to-face, but requires extra focus and greater attention to detail when done remotely. These skills have surely bled over into my professional life as I have found myself being as clear as possible about strategy and goals, while also striving to be kept accountable as I keep my co-workers accountable.

Become a better coach

While being a board member can certainly help you grow your network, the real impact and change come when you do some hands-on work, specifically by helping others reach important goals.

At my first National Board Retreat, I led an informal session on fundraising to get an idea of how comfortable my fellow members were with fundraising concepts and making the ask. After establishing this baseline, I have partnered with my colleagues on the Board Development Committee to provide resources to deepen our collective fundraising knowledge and have worked one-on-one with each member on their personal giving & fundraising goals for the year. This individual work has allowed me to build coaching skills that will come in handy in my own efforts to better integrate the members of my organization’s board into the full spectrum of our fundraising program.

For those readers who are currently on boards or recently served on one, what skills did you gain and how did that impact your work?

For those who have not yet sat on a board, what would you like to get out of this service? And if you are considering it, what is giving you pause?

Dan will be answering your questions about how to join a nonprofit board Wednesday, September 4th at 1pm ET. Learn more here!

DB headshot - May 2012 (1)


Dan is the Assistant Director of Development, Individual Giving at International House, a residential learning community primarily for international graduate students pursuing their studies in the Greater New York region. In this role, he oversees the annual fund, major gifts and planned giving portfolios. Dan blogs about fundraising and non-profit management issues at The Good Steward.



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    • Ali Edelstein
    • August 1, 2013

    Thanks for the great blog, Dan! I’ve been looking for a way to get involved on a Board simply because I enjoy brainstorming and consulting, but my young age, lack of information about how to receive an invitation to serve on one, and previous experience with remote team work are all reasons giving me pause.

    How do you generally go about seeking a board position? Does age matter? How do you motivate remote team members who sign up to help then don’t do any work? I’d love to hear your best tips for digital communication, collaboration, and project management.

    PS- One of our recently returned Fulbright Belgium grantees wrote about his I-House experience here: http://www.fulbright.be/2013/a-fulbrighters-rewarding-experience-living-at-ihouse-nyc-and-other-adventures/

    1. Ali,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      It’s funny that you ask about more of the nuts and bolts of getting onto a nonprofit board, as I am actually working on a follow-up post to cover that in more detail, which I hope will go up in the second half of the month.

      I would say that you should not let age deter you from nonprofit board service. I never thought that I would be on a board before I turned 30! If you are passionate about an organization’s mission and are willing to take on the duties of board service, then you should definitely consider it. When it comes to working on teams remotely (whether a board, for work or just about anything else), I think the most important things are to set clear expectations at the beginning — with a similarly clear understanding of the consequences for not participating at the necessary level — and to engage all team members in enforcing those expectations throughout your work together.

      And special thanks for sharing that Fulbright post! We’re always happy to know that residents really enjoy their I-House experience.

      • Carmen
      • August 1, 2013

      Ali & Dan:
      I love this article! I’m a young NP professional and also serve on a Board of Directors and it’s been very helpful in increasing my skills and visibility in the NP community.
      Ali, I think the best way to find a board position is to find a few NPs you are interested in and begin volunteering with them. Contact the ED and see if you can talk to them about your strengths and were you can contribute. Just be sure to take on the “I want to help you” tone and not the “You need me to help you!” tone.

      I’d love to hear Dan’s tips for digital communication and collaboration as well. I think that’s something we all can improve upon.

    • Dana
    • August 1, 2013

    I am so enthused to see this post – especially as an Executive Director of a nonprofit organization! A great first step when reaching out to an organization that you are passionate about it to connect with the Executive Director. Email is great introductory way to connect, and can allow the ED to share your resume with her Board executive, make sure you attach your resume! There is a responsibility for diversity on boards and many organizations have a mandate to engage younger members and it is critical to engage less experienced directors and create those mentoring relationships on their boards in order to increase their organizational sustainability. I have shared this article all over the social medias! A great case for being involved!

    1. Dana,

      Have any of your board members come to your organization this way? I’m always interested to hear how organizations bring in new board members.

      Thanks for sharing the article with your networks.

    • Rachel E.
    • August 1, 2013

    I currently serve on my church’s council and am on leave from the board of a Christian summer camp (because I started working for camp temporarily). Joining these boards occurred within 2 years of my college graduation. I’m the youngest member that these boards have ever had and I believe having a connection with someone involved with the board or the nominating committee was the main reason for receiving my invitations.
    Serving on boards have already helped me make connections to others in my community. I’m also learning how organizations function. Lastly, serving on boards is helping me to find my voice and helping me to develop skills as a leader. I believe that being a board member is providing me with an immeasurable amount of experience to carry into my professional life.

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  3. Dan,
    This and your corresponding post, “3 Steps to Take if You Want to Join a Non-Profit Board,” are outstanding. When I relocated from Columbus to Cleveland, OH, I went from being a member of the Assoc. of Fundraising Professionals communications committee, to joining AFP Cleveland’s board as VP of Communications.

    Whether you’re networking in a new city or just growing your network, board service is a great way to go. The development of project and team management skills you mentioned will follow. I moved from establishing our organization’s social media presence to overseeing a team of young professionals that are now running our Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts.

    1. Pamela,

      Thanks so much for your kind words about the posts. As a native Clevelander and an active member of AFP, I am very pleased to hear how the Association has allowed you to find like-minded people and build your skills in my dear old hometown.

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