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Serving on nonprofit boards has been some of the most rewarding and frustrating work I have ever done. It gives you a chance to have significant impact on the direction of an agency and issue you are passionate about. I have experienced the amazing work they can do when they at their best, as well as felt the disillusion when they don’t. While I’m no Yoda in the wisdom column, I hope I have picked up a couple tips that could be useful for those looking to serve or already working on a board.
We will start with a bit of a shocker. It’s a job (no really, it is), and like any job it deserves the proper time and energy required to do it right. The agency you are assisting is no less deserving of your best than your employer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you go Office Space on your employer. Living off Jack’s “Value Menu” isn’t desirable, but your board work shouldn’t be kicked aside out of convenience either. So, make sure you understand the time commitment (about 16 hours a month) and alert your employer of the new commitment. Employers can be supportive of this work when they realize the benefits in terms of skills and increased moral that can come with service.
In order to make this commitment, you have to understand your reason for serving. Nothing disengages a new member quicker than a mismatch between their expectations and reality. An organization can create job descriptions and express expectations, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t know (and state) what you want out of the experience. Unlike your 9-5, there is no reward of a paycheck or threat of dismissal to keep you going. It’s all about having the will power to follow through, which is easier when you know what motivates you. I suggest trying something new. On more than one occasion, I have seen individuals select the same exact work as they do in their 9-5, resulting in burnout. If you really just can’t get enough of event planning, then go crazy, but for most of us some variety is good.
Now you have to make sure you schedule the time to do it. For me that means setting aside one or two consistent times a week and having a back up spot in case something comes up. When busy, I break up the work and find a quick 15-20 minute each day to accomplish small tasks. Your way is probably going to be different, but the main point is to make a conscious effort to prioritize and schedule. On a similar note, serving on one board at a time is best and two is the limit. Between board/committee meetings, events, and numerous other obligations, you can easily find your calendar overbooked, causing you to miss or have to choose between activities. While multitasking is all the rage, I find that doing one or two things extremely well does more for your community and your reputation than a list of underwhelming accomplishments.
Finally, take some time to get to know your fellow board members. Now I’m not talking about just “friending” them on Facebook. I’m suggesting you actually sit in the same room, maybe even talk with them. Dinner, BBQ, a group bank heist, whatever helps you bond as a group. Building these relationships often leads to greater communication, efficiency, understanding, and enjoyment. A lot of your board work is connecting with people who have an interest in your mission. So, why not get some practice with your fellow members and create a solid work environment?
So there we have it — a little bit of knowledge surrounded by a lot of words. I chose to focus on the individual because the decision to act rests in your hands. Fortunately in my experience, there are many amazing individuals who choose to give up their time to help others and do it well. But the choice to serve is just the start. How we conduct ourselves in following through on that choice speaks volumes about our character, and I am glad to say I can speak highly of many individuals.
Shawn Rudnick currently serves as a board member on the membership committee for YNPN Phoenix. He previously served as Board President for Trips for Kids Southern Arizona. Shawn is a Nonprofit Leadership and Management graduate from the ASU Lodestar Center.
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