The Real Rules of Board Membership: Finding Your Seat at the Right Table

November 13, 2017 June Bradham

“Finding your why” has become something of a cliché for those charting a new course—in life or in business—but understanding why you are motivated to join a board and why a board might select you for leadership is critical to achieving a satisfying experience for you both.

The Real Rules of Board Membership

In my experience, everyone seeking to join a board wants at least the following three things:

  1. To work with people they respect and want to know. This is a perfectly natural need for not only affinity the desire to make an impact.
  2. To work with people who will help them grow. This counterpoint to the first desire satisfies our ambition to get better over time.
  3. To know that their time will be well used. Today’s world moves fast. Volunteers enjoy work that uses their time very well.

Good news!

Serving on a board—the right board—is a heck of a way for you to achieve all three of those goals! And, it could be the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have.

How to Join a Nonprofit Board

Now that you know why you want to join a board, you must focus on how. Remember that nonprofits, by their nature, will always be seeking charitable contributions. So, first show your interest and engagement by giving generously. For most (beyond the exceptionally wealthy), this will mean honing your focus to only support those few causes that mean the most to you. Concentrating your giving will maximize the impact of your gift and demonstrate your commitment to and passion for the cause.

Further, for your first board seat, keep it local and keep it small. Unless you are prepared to make a five-figure (or more) gift to a larger organization, stick with a smaller nonprofit (or local chapter of a national group) who will value your gift more and be more likely to extend an invitation to serve.

Finally, remember that the greater the stature of the organization, the greater the stature of its board members. Honestly evaluate how you are perceived in the community and choose an organization to match.

Rolling Up Your Sleeves

You’ve made your gift, made yourself visible, and demonstrated your desire to serve, now what?

  1. Focus on presence. Attend their events whenever possible and volunteer to help when the opportunity arises.
  2. Speak love to power. Let leadership know that you are committed to the cause—tell them why—and offer to take on whatever responsibilities they’ll offer.
  3. Find your niche. Make sure that the tasks and projects you take on are a good fit for your skills and likes. After all, there’s no point in accepting responsibility for something you won’t enjoy doing and, therefore, may not knock out of the park.
  4. Come ready to work. Of course, it’s great to get to know your new organization’s team, but stay focused during meetings and events to ensure goals are met.
  5. Say yes to committees. Your hard work may well be rewarded with an offer to join a committee. Joining the right committee and owning your assignments is a solid stepping stone toward that board invitation.


Your dedication paid off and the board has offered you a seat at the table. You know that you must remain financially committed to the cause, but what else can you do to give 100% to your nonprofit while ensuring your own fulfillment?

  1. Make every day your first day. Try to make the same impression every meeting that you made on your first day. That means be prompt, listen attentively, and when you do contribute, be thoughtful, concise, and clear.
  2. Learn the board dynamics. You won’t be a leader at first; watch those who obviously hold the power and learn how they make decisions and how they (or others) implement them.
  3. Respect the ladder. Just as in business, pay your dues and seek opportunities to advance, but understand the hierarchy.
  4. Be prepared for more! Word travels fast among the small world that is board leadership so if you do well on your first board, be prepared for offers to join others.

And finally, remember this:

Presence, power, and prestige… but not necessarily in that order.

  • Just being present on a board does not guarantee prestige or power. 
  • Being powerful does not necessarily mean you have prestige.
  • Having prestige does not mean you have power.

Be mindful of all three and your presence will be desired and power and prestige will grow.

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