03 Jul Join a Nonprofit Board
Serving on a nonprofit board brings both a legal and community-based responsibility. I truly believe that serving on a nonprofit board is a great duty. I serve on three Boards of Directors right now: a professional organization of designers (Blue Ridge AIGA), an organization that helps veterans struggling with recovery from PTSD and drug and alcohol addiction (Building Veterans), and an organization that serves homeless students (SHIP Frederick). Even in Frederick County, which is a fairly well-off county, there are typically about 800 homeless students at any given time.
When it comes to serving on a board, there are a lot of great things you can get out of it:
- You can meet some fantastic people. The people you serve, the people you work with, and the people in the community are all fantastic.
- You get to support your community. Helping people is always a good thing.
- You get to work on solving a problem. Sometimes it’s a big problem, other times its small. Maybe you’re only working on one small piece of a much larger problem.
- You get to do things that you don’t normally get to do in a professional setting. In doing so, you get to learn and experience new and interesting things.
- Build a personal network. With new relationships come new opportunities.
- Have a lot of fun. Get out of your routine, try something new, and make a difference!
Being on a nonprofit is also something like a country song: you could lose your dog, your cat; your job, your truck; your house, your spouse; you could lose your good name. The reason why I bring up this scary statement is because serving on a nonprofit board means that you must take that service seriously:
It is not just an honor; it is an obligation.
You should walk into the opportunity knowing that ahead of time.
Before joining a board, it is important to know if the organization is in good standing and has all their paperwork in order.
There are two levels of paperwork that must be done. One is your registration of organizational documents with the state (your state’s secretary of state or corporations office will have Articles of Incorporation for a Tax-Exempt Nonstock Corporation, here is the form for Maryland) and the other is your tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service (typically as a 501c3). Click here for a deeper explanation of the nonprofit registration process.
It is critical that this paperwork is up to date and organized because if it is not, you as a board member could personally run into some trouble. If you are not careful in exercising your obligations under the three duties, then you could end up in a situation where your good name is dragged through the mud by being associated with a nonprofit organization that is poorly run and in jeopardy or under accusation or wrong doing. You could end up spending time with local or federal judges. Take very good care and stay on top of what the organizations’ status.
Serving on a board is in fact a fantastic experience. In case it is not clear up to anyone reading this, you do have to put in actual work. As we said earlier, it is an honor — not an honorary position.
When you are asked to serve on a nonprofit board, here are some factors that you should consider:
- Know the history, mission, vision, and values of the organization. What are they doing? Do you agree with their values and actions? Are you able to explain those values clearly, adequately, and passionately?
- Meet the other board members. You should know who you are going to be serving with.
- Take the time to volunteer at the organization. This gives you a better idea of what is happening on the ground when it comes to project delivery and internal organization at the grassroots level.
- Make sure the organization is in good standing with its state. You can do this simply by calling the Secretary of State and asking if the organization is in good standing, or looking in the state’s online database.
- Read the bylaws and organization reports. You should know how the organization will be operating. If the organization does not want to give you those documents, take that as a warning sign.
- Check the nonprofit’s financial status. How do they get their money? How do they spend their money?
- Know your expected roles and duties. Are you being brought on board because you have a specific area of expertise? Are you being recruited to fulfill a specific role? Can you fill that role? (For example, as a lawyer I can give a unique perspective and prepare forms, but ethically I do not sign off on documents or provide formal legal advice as the organization’s attorney.)
Before you join any board, make sure you understand what the nonprofit does, what your role would be, and that the organization is in good standing.
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