Let’s start by saying that it’s clear that all professionals who work with youth have full schedules, are always busy with weekend and evening events, and have no time to waste on unproductive involvement. So if you are going to spend time volunteering, have it be something that is rewarding and impactful — for both you and the lucky organization that has gained your interest. Volunteering time on the board (of directors, trustees, advisory) of a nonprofit organization can be a mutually rewarding experience, giving you a chance to give back while also building your own network and resources.
Board service is not for everyone. When taken seriously, it can be like having a part-time job — approving budgets and finances, leading related committees, running events, having legal oversight and governing the operations of the organization. The most successful organizations recruit and leverage the skills and talents of passionate community members and put them to work for the benefit of all parties involved.
For many nonprofit organizations, the contributions of their board members are crucial to achieving their mission. This is especially the case for newly created organizations that often need board members to take on mixed roles as leaders while also doing some work on the ground.
As you ponder the idea of joining a board, it’s important to reflect if board service is right for you by considering the following things:
- How much time do I have to commit to this organization?
- Does the organization’s mission align with my values?
- Does the organization have a financial give-get commitment that I will be responsible for?
- What skills/talents do I have that will be an asset to the organization? What role will I have?
- What networks am I a part of that I can lean on to support my service to the organization?
- How will participating in this way further my personal and/or professional goals?
If, after considering your responses to these questions, you feel strongly about serving on a board, it’s time to communicate that with the organization. In some instances an organization will reach out to you as part of targeted recruitment. In this case, just tell them that you are ready to commit!
Other times there might be a call for applications or you might have come across an organization on your own that you’re interested in getting more involved with or you’ve identified an area that you can support them around. If this is the case, then you should approach your contact at the organization about the best way to join the board. No matter how you are recruited for the position, the experience will provide both you and the organization with learning opportunities that are unique and valuable.
Collectively, we have served on eight boards over the past 14 years. Not every experience has been positively productive, but even those that did not provide opportunities for learning we were able to put into use in the future.
Your time as a board member should help you build your network of individuals and organizations who have like-minded interests, work collaboratively with others toward a common goal, advocate for youth on a higher level and improve skills and talents that you feel are underdeveloped. Board service and leadership can also be a time to kick open the door for your own leadership, taking steps toward climbing the executive ladder by learning about and impacting aspects of organizational operations that are new to you.
It’s important to know when to take the risks and when to say no, finding a balance of your own obligations and the needs of the organization. Most board positions have a time limit on service, and this isn’t always a bad thing. There is more incentive to give your all when you know your time is limited before you will pass the torch to someone else.
Bringing in new blood and volunteers to an organization’s board leadership can broaden the reach within the community, ensure that new resources and talents can be brought to the organization and allow board members who are not living up to the agreed-upon expectations and contributions to leave. There will come a time when you feel you’ve made your impact on the organization and decide to pass the reins of leadership on to someone new.
The most successful boards are made up of a diverse group of volunteers who can support the organization through their time, talent and treasure. Think about what you can give and how you want to make a difference while supporting your own goals. One of the greatest gifts you can give is the gift of time — and certainly board leadership is a great way to do that.
Tiffany Searles is the director of programs at New Foundations Charter School in Philadelphia. She also serves as the secretary of the Spruce Foundation and the board liaison for City Year Philadelphia.
Shira Woolf Cohen is the K-8 principal at New Foundations Charter School in Philadelphia, where she has served as teacher, after-school coordinator, dean and vice principal for the past 17 years. She is a Neubauer Fellow for Educational Leadership and serves on the board of directors for the National Youth Leadership Council.