Pay It Forward: The Business Case For Serving On A Nonprofit Board

Volunteering isn't just a good deed. Here's how it can help your business, too.
July 25, 2011

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Americans are generous people. From Meals on Wheels to blood drives to charity fun runs, we do a lot of volunteering. These short-term gifts of time are great. But have you ever considered volunteering your management experience in a way that helps the community, makes you feel good and helps your business?

There’s a good business case for paying it forward by serving on a nonprofit board:

  • It’s good business. Americans reward companies that pay it forward. Two-thirds of executives say that corporate citizenship produces a tangible contribution to the bottom line, and seven of 10 Americans say a commitment to social issues is an important factor in deciding which stocks and mutual funds to invest in.
  • It’s good marketing. Your participation on the board adds to your personal and professional reputation, and to that of your business. It expands your network as you work closely with an enormous range of talented people from other businesses. You’ll also deepen your understanding of the community, its residents and their needs.
  • It’s good career development. Nonprofits need board members with skills in law, marketing, fund development, business development, negotiations, scalability, mergers and acquisitions and many other areas. Board service offers you the chance to exercise the skills you’ve mastered while expanding into new challenges. Almost two-thirds of white-collar volunteers report positive impacts on their career. Some large corporations even use nonprofit board service as a staff-development tool.
  • It’s good for you. The benefits of board service extend to your sense of well-being. Nonprofit board members report a profound sense of engagement and renewal as they share their talents for a worthy cause. Studies show that reaching out to help others improves emotional health. In addition, serving the community enhances your status. Board work stretches you out of your comfort zone, making for a potent combination of personal rewards.

Don’t enter board volunteering lightly, however. Judy Sharken Simon is the manager of Board and Volunteer Services at MAP for Nonprofits, a St. Paul, Minn.–based consultancy. She helps prepare business owners, managers and professionals to serve on nonprofit boards. She’s also a matchmaker, fitting the skills and passions of these individuals with the needs of regional nonprofits. Sharken Simon suggests considering the following:

  • Do you have the time? Most board positions run two to three years and require three to nine hours a month for meetings, preparation and committee involvement.
  • Are you passionate about the cause? Donating time, skills and money is much easier if you have an emotional commitment to the organization’s cause. Passion can carry you past the inevitable bumps in nonprofit service.
  • Is the organization worth your time? Even if you love the cause, you must be sure the organization fits your interests, skills and available time. Before volunteering on the board, ask about its financial situation; what it needs from you; the problems, challenges and successes it’s experiencing; and its plans for the near future. Meet with the executive director, one or more board members, and sit in on a meeting if you can. If possible, test the waters by volunteering on an ad hoc committee before committing to a term on the board.
  • Can you make a financial commitment? Most nonprofits expect board members to donate to the organization. Find out what’s expected of you.
  • Can you help fundraise? Almost every nonprofit will ask you to help—by inviting friends to fundraisers, connecting the nonprofit to new donors, and opening the doors for others to befriend and fund the nonprofit.
  • Can you be selfless? Board members are bound to duties of care, loyalty and obedience that require them to put the best interests of the nonprofit above other interests, to avoid conflict of interests and to obey governing bylaws. You must be able to commit to these duties.
  • Can you handle the culture? Nonprofits vary widely, but new board members are often surprised by the slower pace of decisions, the scarcity of resources and the complexity of the “dual bottom line” that requires consideration of both social and financial impact.

At any one time, there are an estimated two million open nonprofit board positions in the U.S. Organizations like Sharken Simon’s MAP for Nonprofits exist in many major cities. Other ways to find board openings include contacting local foundations or the United Way; searching online organizations like boardnetUSA and VolunteerMatch; contacting your state’s nonprofit association or university nonprofit management program; and finally, by letting people in your own networks know of your interest.

Vincent Hyman is a St. Paul, Minnesota–based writer and editor.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.

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