With everything currently happening in the world, becoming a nonprofit board member represents a low barrier and impactful option to make a difference in your community. Board membership allows people to take their community engagement to another level. Unlike one-off opportunities like volunteering and donating, joining a nonprofit board provides a long-term commitment to advancing an organization’s mission.
On June 16, sf.citi brought in three experienced nonprofit board members to explore nonprofit boards and their benefits. The speakers included Hakeem Oseni, who serves on Cyversity, Information Systems Security Association (ISSA), and Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). Cammy Blackstone, who sits on the boards of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, Union Square Alliance, and sf.citi. And Ali Vivinetto, who started and serves on the associate board of 826 Valencia. These local leaders sat down with us to share their stories about serving as board members and discuss the impact board membership has had on their life, career, and community.
Learn more about nonprofit board membership by watching sf.citi’s conversation with three experienced nonprofit board members at Board Leadership 101: Make an Impact in Your Community.
OUTLINING THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A NONPROFIT BOARD
As the governing body of a nonprofit, board members are essential to the nonprofit’s success. They must make high-level strategic decisions and create accountability for their organization. The board must also play an integral role in safeguarding the nonprofit’s mission, ensuring its legal and financial health, and raising awareness about the organization. Hakeem Oseni, Senior Product Manager of Detection and Response at Salesforce, described this responsibility as being in the driver’s seat, advancing the organization’s impact.
[Board leadership means] having an impact on the strategic direction of where the future of the nonprofit organization is trying to go and the type of clients that they’re trying to [help] and the social problems that they’re trying to solve.
—Hakeem Oseni, Senior Product Manager of Detection and Response, Salesforce
The board’s responsibilities significantly affect the success of the clients, programs, and nonprofit’s mission. Everyone is happy when a volunteer shows up, but volunteering to become a board member fundamentally increases the amount of work and responsibilities. According to Cammy Blackstone, Director of External Affairs at AT&T, board members should understand every aspect of the organization and try to involve themselves in every major decision.
In addition to the board of directors, many nonprofits also have a junior or associate board. These boards have a lower barrier to entry—financially, professionally, and with board experience—and help build the next generation of leaders. Despite taking on less responsibility than the board of directors, associate boards provide invaluable work that varies depending on the organization’s needs. Ali Vivinetto, Product Marketing Manager at Google, said her associate board focuses primarily on fundraising, raising awareness about the organization’s work, and recruiting volunteers.
An associate board is a really great way to get started, especially if the board you’re interested in [has] a big donation attached to them…[especially] when you’re starting your career and might not have $5,000 for a board seat.
—Ali Vivinetto, Product Marketing Manager, Google
Most nonprofits have traditional “give or get” boards, which means that to sit on the board, board members must personally give the required monetary amount or get it from someone else, such as an employer or donors. If the board does not have a financial requirement, it is most likely a working board that requires board members to commit to a certain number of hours. Some nonprofit boards may even require a combination of both.
EXPLORING THE BENEFITS OF BOARD MEMBERSHIP
In joining a nonprofit board, many board members are attracted to the core idea of community and maximizing your impact for an organization that aligns with your interests. Board work allows members to tap into their desire to give back to the community and see tangible results first-hand. Nonprofits cannot succeed without attracting talented professionals to their board that believe in the organization and its mission.
On a personal level, joining a board as an extracurricular activity or as a complement to work can also provide a sense of fulfillment. People want to find an organization they connect with and care about its mission. Ali described it as allowing you to show your whole self, especially at work, where people can say that you have a life outside the office and give back to the community.
Helping your professional career
Board membership has long been recognized as a respected way to enhance your skills and advance your career. It provides a different perspective outside the office that can open doors for future endeavors.
Becoming a board member gives you unmatched connections and networking opportunities. It allows you to carve out something that your unique skill set can achieve while also giving you a low-barrier opportunity to gain experience in a new type of work or skill. Lastly, and most importantly, joining a board gives you learning experiences that you don’t get in the classroom, such as how to conduct yourself under pressure, how to get your point across diplomatically, and how to be an effective boss.
IDENTIFYING THE FIRST STEPS TO JOINING A NONPROFIT BOARD
Finding the right nonprofit board to join can undoubtedly feel daunting in the beginning. To make this process easier, each experienced board member we spoke to gave us advice on starting a board search journey.
Hakeem kicked off the conversation by suggesting to look in your community. Start with local organizations like your religious institution and local food banks; from there, ask to step up. Even if it’s not a board seat, joining a committee or volunteering can demonstrate to that organization and others that you’re willing to show up and take ownership of a problem. Hakeem also recommended board match-type events that act as career fairs for boards as a great starting point.
Cammy advised finding organizations you’re excited about and asking if they have any board openings. Rarely a nonprofit says no, as they are always looking for new board members. Then for the civically inclined, Cammy also brought up Maddy’s list, which shows open vacancies on San Francisco boards and committees.
As an excellent way to get exposed to more local nonprofits, Ali plugged the Y Core fellowship, which connects young, mostly tech workers with nonprofits to do consulting-based projects. Ali also recommends asking organizations if they have an associate board. If they don’t have a junior board, this could be a great opportunity as most organizations have wanted one and would love to build it out.
BECOMING A SUCCESSFUL BOARD MEMBER
Success on the board does not happen overnight, and like with many things in life, board work takes practice and a commitment to thrive. Throughout the discussion, our panel of experienced nonprofit board members provided several helpful tips on how to be an influential board member.
- Set aside time. The time commitment of board work varies from board to board. Our panelists said they spend two to five hours a week handling board responsibilities depending on what’s going on with their nonprofit (e.g. large-scale events, fundraising deadlines, seasonal activities, etc.). To ensure they take care of their responsibilities and stay highly engaged, the panelists recommend carving out time each week dedicated to board work.
- Develop fundraising skills. Fundraising is a versatile skill that represents a significant responsibility of board members. Learning how to fundraise can feel awkward or scary, but our panelists recommend embracing the vulnerability. It takes time and practice to become a proficient fundraiser. But once you learn how to flex the fundraising muscle, those skills can apply to many facets of life.
- Know when to leave a board. Enter your board tenure with a plan of what you hope to accomplish and when you want to move on from that board seat. Most nonprofit boards have four-year cycles, but even if they don’t, the movement of board members can help with burnout, increase diversity, and bring in new energy and ideas.
- Make your voice heard. Whenever you attend a meeting, make sure you say something and ask a question. Hakeem recommends coming prepared with bits of knowledge to drop in the meeting and asking “boss” questions that challenge the group to think big and out of the box.
I had impostor syndrome [when I first became a board member. I thought,] who am I sitting with people who sit on other boards [and are] EVPs at other banks and financial institutions? What value am I going to [add] to this conversation? But then, I remember that we all have a voice and…bring unique opinions and experiences to the table.
—Hakeem Oseni, Senior Product Manager of Detection and Response, Salesforce
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