The Evolution of Nonprofit Board Service

Non-Profits, Partnerships

The profile of a board member is changing.

When we think about the nonprofit board, it’s often shrouded in mystery. Traditionally, nonprofit board members were seen as individuals with a strong understanding of management and finance who could provide valuable insights and support to the organization. They had typically achieved significant professional success, and nonprofits hoped their board placement would translate into additional funding and access to that individual’s network. 

Today, nonprofits are challenging the traditional way of filling board seats, seeking board members who actively engage with their cause or community and demonstrate passion and commitment to the organization’s mission. There has been a shift toward a more diverse and inclusive profile of board members. This includes individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, including those from underrepresented communities, women, young professionals, and people with expertise in technology, social media, and marketing. The shift ensures that the perspectives of the communities the nonprofit serves are reflected in leadership—which also ensures that the organization’s mission and values firmly align with its beneficiaries’ identified needs and aspirations 

What’s causing this shift? 

This shift is being driven by several factors, including: 

The increasing complexity of the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits are now operating in a more competitive and dynamic environment. They face several challenges, including complex regulations, societal expectations, and increased competition for attention in a world with an unpredictable future. To be successful, nonprofits need board members with the skills and experience to help them navigate and adapt to these ever-evolving factors. 

The welcome demand for diversity and inclusion in strategy decisions. The social sector increasingly recognizes the importance of having a diverse and inclusive board, encouraging sustainable organizational strategies that reflect a broader range of perspectives and experiences. It is a disservice to assume that only those successful in business will provide the best advice and support for our nonprofit partners. While nonprofit board members may have good intentions, their perspectives may only partially reflect those of the community leaders. By providing a platform for a more representative board room that welcomes perspective change at a transformational level, we can expect more sustainable decisions that support solutions for the entire ecosystem in which the nonprofit rests, not just for that individual organization. 

The changing nature of work necessitates boards to come alive with new skills beyond the traditional finance and legal backgrounds. These skills still hold immense value, but nonprofits are also strategically filling board seats for the organization they want ten years down the road. They’re looking for innovators, strategic thinkers, and community leaders.  

However, according to BoardSource, 32% of nonprofit CEOs report difficulty finding the right members for their board, mainly due to a perceived lack of people with the right skills or ties to that organization’s beneficiary community. So, how can companies make sure their board members are the right members?  

We’ve seen that in times of great need and social unrest, companies can play a critical role by offering tools and opportunities to employees to help them feel empowered in driving change in their communities. Board service is increasingly becoming part of that strategy. We know that about 45% of companies offer board service programs, often as part of their more extensive skills-based volunteering portfolio. But there’s usually something missing: a successful board service program rests in its ability to proactively demonstrate support of employees and the communities our nonprofit partners serve. 

So, what does a supportive board service program look like? 

Supporting employees in board service can define a company’s commitment to its communities. Doing this right offers Transformative leadership development to established and emerging leaders and demonstrates a commitment to organizational resiliency throughout your nonprofit partner portfolio.

Encouraging company-supported board members to understand what it actually means to fill a board seat and their role in transferring power and representing the voices of leaders in the community is critical to a successful program. To encourage employees and nonprofit partners to take advantage of board service opportunities, companies can:  

  1. Understand the communities you are trying to support through board service by learning from your partners and their community leaders, focusing on their success, and ensuring your work is aligned with their needs. What are the community’s identified needs, and what roles are board members expected to fill? How can you center their feedback in evaluating your board service program? What does trust look like in this relationship, and how can you consider the power dynamics in this partnership?  
  2. Effectively convey the weight of the role. Set expectations for employees to explore whether board service is a right fit for them. The leadership development opportunity is incredible, but only when positioned correctly. Board service typically requires an average of 8.2 hours a month of volunteer time, and with the typical board service term lasting two years, that’s nearly 200 hours of their time. This is even higher if a board member serves in a leadership position or on a committee. It’s also important to note that they’ll need to clearly understand any fiduciary responsibilities and the risks they assume when taking the position. Board members can wield intense power in the sector, but only as a combined unit. Board members must work as a team to achieve their nonprofit’s mission. Committing to board service can be quite an undertaking and requires highly dedicated board members to intentionally support the organization and to ask hard questions to steer the organization in the right direction.  
  3. Offer resources and training to set your employees up for success, which will look different depending on your target population and your team’s capacity. Often, companies offer more hands-on placement services to high-level leaders and executives and provide more off-the-shelf materials for other groups. This may include evergreen materials that describe the roles, responsibilities, and risks of board service, an overview of the nonprofit landscape and the inherent power imbalances evident in most traditional board structures, a process outlining how employees find or apply for board positions, and an outline of all support and recognition available to them during their term if they’re successfully nominated to fill a board seat.  
  4. Consider matching gifts and hours of service. Most nonprofit boards encourage or require that their board members demonstrate a financial commitment to the nonprofit by making donations, which can be prohibitive to many employees. Offering to match employee donations and their board service hours reflects the company’s dedication to driving community impact at all levels while also encouraging more representation in your future leaders. Outlining all policies around matching gifts and donations to those interested in service is critical to setting expectations. 

It’s important to note that a successful board service program can represent high stakes for the company and the board members. Ensuring practitioners evaluate all associated risks and have a strategy in place to mitigate these risks is critical.  

As leaders of volunteers, we know there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for volunteer engagement, especially in the post-pandemic economy. Employees value a company that sets purposeful intentions and offers the chance to become part of that movement. For many, life may be getting in the way of volunteering, so offering various volunteer opportunities that align with individual motivations, including nonprofit board service, is critical. With appropriate training and resources, a board service program will be a flagship program, allowing employees to learn new skills, accelerate their leadership development, and network with other professionals, all while building the resiliency of your nonprofit partners and their beneficiaries.  

Natalie Norton

Strategic Consultant

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Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!


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