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Not-for-Profit Engagement in Your Next Season: Lessons Learned
blog/photo by Mark Shaiken, My Next Season Client
Sometimes, the most valuable tool you have is your intuition. Some may call it the little voice in your head, or a gut feeling; others just refer to it as good judgment. Whatever you like to call it, that little voice can be helpful, and you should listen to it when you’re thinking of venturing into the world of not-for-profit board leadership.
I recently retired after a rewarding thirty-eight-year law career and over twenty-five years with one law firm. I knew I didn’t want downtime in my transition; instead I wanted support as I figured out which of my interests would materialize into opportunities to launch my first next season. I jumped right into a time of exploration with the hope that an interesting opportunity or two would come my way in the form of not-for-profit board leadership.
I had a newly polished bio that I began to circulate, and I attended board fairs, fundraisers, and events for those organizations that interested me. I networked extensively, and exploratory interviews came quickly. Ultimately, I joined three boards; much like people are different, the organizations and their boards were quite different as well.
From these experiences, I learned several rules to share with you as you seek not-for-profit board positions: 1) know which questions to ask when interviewing for a board seat, 2) discern when a board is both a good fit (or not) and a good use of your time and skills (or not), 3) make sure you understand precisely the mission of the prospect organization and whether that mission aligns with your interests, and 4) rebound quickly in the event the decision needs to be made to step away from a board.
The age-old advice for job interviews holds true for board interviews as well: “Be prepared to ask questions of your interviewer.” These questions will help you start your due diligence process and should be viewed as standard for any not-for-profit board interview you go on:
- May I see your financials?
- Can you provide a copy of your bylaws?
- Can I get involved initially in some ways other than board service to see if this is a good fit, before committing to joining the board?
Financial information is somewhat in the public domain as not-for-profit organizations must publicly file their Form 990 federal tax returns. Bylaws should not be an organizational secret. And, unlike other board work, there should be opportunities to get to know the organization before you commit to a multi-year board term. Volunteer; attend events; get to know other volunteers, staff, and leadership. Doing so will confirm the fit before you ever get to an interview.
Each of my three organizations had a different response to the three questions. When I asked these questions of one of my organizations, I learned that the board considered the financials to be confidential, the bylaws were being rewritten, and there were no functioning committees for involvement. Therefore, there was no real chance to interact with the other board members and learn about the organization. There was no opportunity before committing to the board service to determine if the board and I were a good match. But I wanted to start my new season with board service, so I jumped at the chance at sitting on the board when, in hindsight, I should have listened to my intuition and stayed grounded.
My second organization answered all of my questions, allowed me to sit on a committee before I considered board service, and shared with me all corporate documents and financial information up front. As well, my third organization shared all information with me that was available, although there were no committees at the time upon which I could sit.
Exploring Compatibility Before You Serve on a Board
In my first organization, I ignored the little voice, but it was right. The organization and I were not well matched. I went to meetings and events, and I just did not seem to fit in. It was also clear that the existing board members did not have a unified vision of the organization’s mission. Without belaboring the details, I left my last board meeting with the strong impression that the board and I were not an optimal combination, and I felt it best for the organization and for me that I resign. That little voice in my head wasn’t so little anymore. Inside, that voice was shouting, “This isn’t working!” and I did not feel I was helping the organization. I reached the conclusion that had I listened to the voice at the beginning, I would not have joined the board without more due diligence and information.
Departing Gracefully; Refocusing Quickly
When I conveyed my decision, I declined to get into details as I had no desire to say something that would be construed as a criticism of the board or the not-for-profit itself. I really did not have criticisms. The board members and the executive director are all good people, and the organization is admirable and does good work; it’s just not for me. There are many worthy organizations, but that is not the standard for board service. The “fit” should be the standard. So, I wished them well, and I accepted that it was okay for me to no longer affiliate with them. I genuinely hope they feel the same way.
Luckily, in the midst of that transition, I was able to turn my attention to the two other organizations in which I was involved. Before I joined each board, both were transparent in sharing information, including financials and bylaws. Both invited me to participate in either committees or hands-on events and classes so that I could be part of the work they were doing before taking a seat in the boardroom. Both answered every question I asked and introduced me to all the board members, and the boards of both organizations had a unified vision of their respective missions, which gave me the opportunity to determine if the missions represented causes in which I had an interest. Both welcomed my participation in fundraising and planning, and both have been very rewarding experiences thus far. Each organization was living out its mission and allowed me to get to know the people involved including other board members. All of this pre-service information and involvement was instrumental in determining that the compatibility was good, and in each instance, my little voice and I agreed that board service was the right move.
My organizations are Think 360 Arts for Learning and Task Force: ISO. Think 360, a Young Audiences affiliate, brings art to school kids, many in the inner city, by simultaneously employing young artists and paying them a fair wage. From the moment I heard about them I was drawn to their mission and their creative problem solving. Before I joined the board, I was able to cultivate a relationship with the organization, attending reveals and art shows at schools in the Denver metro area. I had opportunities to meet the artists, kids, teachers, and superintendent who had made these special projects possible. I met the organization’s board chair and executive director and instantly liked both of them. Personality fit is no small thing, when you consider the dynamics of working side-by-side for potentially several years with other people to further a mission.
Task Force is a veterans organization, and among other parts of its mission, teaches photography to veterans, many with PTSD. As a photographer, I was privileged to be asked to co-teach the first semester of classes in 2019 before I started my board service; I really enjoyed getting to know the vets and the organization’s founder and executive director. When I interviewed for the board, I found it refreshing to receive solid answers to my questions.
Finding Your Place
Building a portfolio of engagement after my retirement has been a journey with much progress and, to be sure, some setbacks. I admit I wasn’t fully prepared for the setback part, but when I reflect on it now, of course not every opportunity can be expected to be a perfect fit. When in life do we ever bat a thousand? Finding boards with which to engage is always a bit of a risk, just like every new job or promotion you’ve accepted. There is no guarantee it will work out the way you hoped.
To increase the chances of a great experience, I suggest getting to know an organization through service, events, committees, and lots of conversation with stakeholders and leadership. Let them get to know you. Get answers to your questions. As much as possible, make sure you and the organization are a good fit. Only then will you both understand what you are getting in a board member.
Know that there are so many organizations out there that need your skills, your energy, and your desire to have an impact. If one of them isn’t a good fit for you, operationally or otherwise, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance to do something important. Continue to network, to ask questions, to seek out people and organizations doing work you care about. Your skills and wisdom are needed, and your engagement can make a big difference in the life of an organization—and in yours.