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Cultivating Leadership: How to be an effective nonprofit board member

Jun 20, 2023

Serving as a nonprofit board member requires intellectual passion and professionalism.

Taking a leadership role in a nonprofit seeking to drive meaningful change can be a real source of pride and satisfaction—particularly when you do the job well.

Working as a board member always requires a blend of intellectual passion and professionalism. But by learning to apply your skills more effectively, you can better champion a cause, influence the future, provide financial support and leverage your expertise.

As you expand your role, make sure that you understand—and really care about—your organization’s mission. With more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations now operating in the United States, there are a plethora of causes and organizations for you to get involved in as a board member. Some organizations serve as pillars in their communities and are long-established institutions; others are innovative startups seeking to meet a specific, unmet need.

Whether you plan to deepen your board responsibilities or search for your first board role, be sure to take some time to explore your own goals. As summer begins, now is a great time to reflect on personal and professional areas of interest, identify new charitable boards you’d like to support later this year and make a plan before “giving season” begins this fall.

To direct your initial search—or become a more impactful leader for the causes you already care about—it’s helpful to think about following these best practices. 

Holding a board position can be extremely rewarding even though it can be a commitment of your time.  Make sure to always first determine your key interests, pinpoint a few causes or organizations that you’d like to support and then align your goals with the amount of time you’re able to allocate.

If you’re just starting out, here are a few key questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there a particular mission or geographical area you hope to address? Do you want to change your community at the local level or focus on national or international issues? Are you aiming to meet critical needs or drive systems change?
  • Have you volunteered with an organization that you would like to help? Volunteering is a great way to begin to get to know an organization, before you commit more time and resources.
  • Are you inspired by your philanthropic goals? If you’ve given financial support to an organization in the past, might you also donate your professional knowledge or social capital?

If you already have a few organizations in mind, consider whether they are a good fit:

  • Do the organization’s mission and programs truly align with your values?
  • Have you met with any of the organization’s beneficiaries to hear about their experiences firsthand? Do you see an impact?
  • Do you (and the board) have clear expectations of what your membership on the board will entail?
  • Are you confident that you understand the financial commitment of board membership? Many organizations will expect you to either donate or fundraise a designated amount.

CASE STUDY:  During COVID-19, a recently retired business executive moved to a new community. Seeking to get involved in the community and leverage her strategic planning expertise, she attended events and gatherings to familiarize herself with different charitable organizations that focused on education. Eventually, she joined an afterschool mentoring program that was scaling up its programs for greater community outreach.

Once you have narrowed down your list, it’s important to think about the strengths you can bring to the boardroom. Just like for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations have lifecycles, too. Newer organizations may require hands-on board members to drive the programmatic mission, whereas established organizations already have that infrastructure in place.

  • Depending on the size of the board, committees, and your own areas of expertise, your core responsibilities might focus on one or multiple areas of critical importance. These areas can include but are not limited to: portfolio management, budgeting, fundraising, strategic planning, volunteer and event coordination and community engagement.
  • Most boards hope to fill positions with leaders who either have expertise in a particular social issue or professional experience that could benefit the organization. Ask and assess the specific needs of the board: Is it revamping the organization’s strategic plan? Revitalizing its network of donors? Evaluating the long-term impact of specific programs? Addressing leadership or human resource management? It’s important to understand how your skills will fit the board’s agenda.
  • Match your strengths and skill sets to the needs of the organization for the greatest effect: An organization focused on providing affordable housing in a specific city, for example, may seek board members who have been involved in residential real estate development in that same city.

CASE STUDY: The chief operating officer of a major company joined a prominent arts board in his city. In this role, he used his professional skills to advise the board on its operations and extensive programming budgets; he also leveraged his professional position to help bring more attention to the organization’s mission.

After you have identified the organization you wish to support, explored open roles and inquired about the culture of the board, find the fun! By serving in a way that utilizes your abilities while benefitting the well-being of the organization and your fellow board members, you can inherit a deep sense of satisfaction. To be an effective and influential nonprofit leader, be sure to:

  • Focus on supporting the organization’s executives and staff in their day-to-day work
  • Stay flexible and adapt to changing circumstances and shifting priorities
  • Listen actively to the concerns and needs of the organization and decide how you can help provide a solution
  • Find your voice as a passionate external advocate of the organization’s mission and vision
  • Show empathy and respect for your fellow board members, the organization’s staff and the community you’re aiming to serve
  • Remain open to learning and developing throughout your time in the role

Becoming a strong nonprofit board member takes dedication, hard work and a willingness to learn and grow. By focusing on your gifts, communicating well and adapting to changing market circumstances, you can help your cause or community achieve its goals and make a positive impact. Reach out to J.P. Morgan team for advice and guidance.

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