Earlier this month, I met a young woman who was about to launch what promises to be an exciting nonprofit career. While the community development job she would begin the next week was her first full-time, paid, post-graduation position, her history of activism and community service already was a long one.
Her passion was contagious and energizing. It also reminded me of my early board assignments, which were fresh on my mind after wrapping up the recent series on research conducted early in my governance life.
I offered my new friend some unsolicited advice for her impending adventure. Then I wondered: what advice would the more experienced me of today offer to the me of 29 years ago as she began her board journey? How would I counsel an acquaintance about to head down that same path, someone who is new to nonprofit governance (and, yes, maybe even young)?
As I pondered those questions, I realized that some of what I shared at that wedding reception with my new acquaintance also would apply to someone beginning their nonprofit service on a board. It resonates even more personally, as I step toward a new board adventure, launching a brand new nonprofit.
Dear new member,
You've just committed to what may be one of the greatest and most fulfilling (if occasionally frustrating) leadership adventures of your life! Your service to your community is significant, as are the responsibilities to which you've just committed. I've learned a few lessons along my own governance journey, and I offer them in the spirit of helping you find your own path to success.
First, reaffirm - for yourself and others - your commitment to the mission and vision of the organization you're about to serve. You may already be a supporter or contributor, and you're already passionate. Or you may support the mission and organization generally but not have direct experience with the actual work. Yet. Whichever it may be, ground yourself in why you're embarking on this journey. Hold it close. It will be what drives you - especially in the hard times.
Second, be prepared to articulate and advocate for that commitment to others. Board service is leadership, and it's intended to be shared - outside of the organization as well as inside. Your voice is a credible one. It also is a link to new networks of supporters and potential supporters. Be ready to use it.
Third, ask yourself - and your fellow board members - where you can best contribute. Attending meetings is an essential, but insufficient, part of service. You will be expected to share leadership, whether formally or informally, before your term is over. Identify early the places where you can step in and become an active participant - then to it. Be prepared to step up when your leadership is needed, even before you are asked.
Fourth, commit to your own learning, to help you become the best board member possible. Take advantage of any formal orientation offered, but don't stop there. Ask for more, especially as you're engaging and interacting (and voting) in the board's work. If your board doesn't have a formal mentoring program, ask a veteran member to act in that capacity for you. Read, explore, seek out resources - in and outside of the organization - to help you grasp the mission area better. Broaden your search to access the range of fantastic information readily available on virtually any mission area. Look around you. Understand the local context (however your organization defines "local") beyond your organizational walls. No nonprofit works in isolation. Explore the impacts, opportunities to collaborate, etc., that affect you organization's capacity to serve effectively.
Fifth, extend your learning to nonprofit governance. If you're truly new to nonprofit board service, look inside and outside the organization to gain a perspective on the roles and responsibilities that you are assuming. Don't limit yourself to anything resembling "X basic responsibilities...," whether from your board job description or a list from other source. Those are the tasks of governance, but they're not usually your sources of inspiration or information for leadership. Even/especially if you are a board veteran, ask: What does governance mean and look like in this boardroom? In this nonprofit? Don't assume that your previous experiences will apply here.
Sixth, take care of yourself. This was good advice for my young acquaintance, who was diving into challenging work in an equally challenging community. But it's also important for board members. It can be easy to become so focused on the work - especially when fitting it into already over-packed schedules - that you lost both energy and perspective. Find ways to recharge your board batteries. Attend training events or conferences related to your work. Insist that the board step away periodically and use that space for team building, group reflections, and other work that feeds your commitment and your ability to lead. Request that regular meeting agendas include time for that same kind of capacity building activity. That's your real work.
Seventh, find ways to see and appreciate the impact of what you do to the bigger picture. Listen for, and capture, stories and examples that remind you that you're making a difference. They provide powerful evidence that you can share with others. They also can remind you that your work truly is meaningful. You'll be able to draw energy from those reminders, especially when you're feeling frustrated and stuck because progress doesn't come as easy or as quickly as you'd like.
Finally, request opportunities to evaluate your individual and collective efforts. More than a periodic "grade," board self-assessment is a chance to reflect. It's an opportunity to appreciate the strengths and significant contributions emerging from your leadership. It's a way to identify and explore the struggles, and a way to work past them. Regular assessment allows you to recognize and commit to moving forward from where you are today, with the organization's vision as the horizon toward which you are moving.
Enjoy every minute. Take your leadership responsibility seriously, but never so seriously that you lose the joy that drew you to it in the first place.
In gratitude for your service yet to come,
What advice would you share with someone new to board service?