Picture yourself on a nonprofit board

Wednesday night, Greenlights hosted its fourth “Board Summit,” which is not as descriptive a title as it could be considering it’s not a summit of nonprofit boards but rather more like a “board fair” in that it matches would-be board members with nonprofits that need board members.

I went to see what kind of people thought they wanted to serve on a board. Surprisingly, I saw quite a few people I knew, and I spent a little too much time catching up. The people I knew already, though, were active volunteers who constantly sought ways to pitch in… which made sense. The overall group consisted of young-ish, mid-30s professional types, mostly white but with a surprising (to me) number of non-whites, too, and a fairly even mix of women and men. I also suspect (and this is just my assessing a large group of people by their looks) that the attendees were at a point in their careers where they needed an extra boost to get themselves to the next level. Maybe they saw the people right above them on the ladder with a long CV listing community service. Usually, people at the top have some board service on their resumes.

But I’m just guessing as to their motivations. (The problem with my attending these events, I’m finding, is that I leave with as many questions as I do answers. Maybe I need a follow-up interview with Greenlights or Leadership Austin, another sponsor of the Board Summit.)

All the attendees, though, seemed seriously interested in serving. For one, they had to pay to attend, which weeds out those who came for the food (those would have been way disappointed). They also had to come ready to “network,” which can be awkward and not worth the trouble, for most people. And they had to be willing to put themselves out there – to interview, almost, with nonprofit executive directors and development directors. This was an ambitious group.

Another assumption was that none had served on a board before. So Evan Smith, editor of Texas Monthly, opened with a heart-to-heart talk on how busy you can get when you serve on a board (or in his case, boards), have a full-time job, and have a family you like. His talk would make a great article for GoodCause, in fact, complete with a “10 Rules to Live By” sidebar. Do editors just naturally think in terms of body copy and sidebars?

After Smith’s talk, lots of us crowded into a room to hear a panel discussion titled, “What’s It Like to Sit on a Board.” The three people on the panel had plenty of experience and were definitely qualified to serve. But in hearing from these actual board members, I think one thing became clear… something that wasn’t really brought up, but I think the audience could sense: Serving on a board is not just service. To hear these panelists speak – not just what they said but how they spoke, the words they chose, the polish they seemed to possess – to hear them speak was to realize that serving on a board is about leadership.

Someone in the audience asked, “Why serve on a board? Why not volunteer?” possibly implying that volunteers are the ones who carry out the actual mission of the nonprofit as opposed to just sit around and talk about it. If he were implying that… well, he’s right. Volunteering is where the rubber meets the road, it’s where folks get their hands dirty.

But serving on a board… that’s about leading. Not just making decisions and maintaining budgets and checking legalities, it’s about embodying the mission, using charisma and talent to inspire other board members and staff, and being able to bring big-time support to the organization, in dollars and outreach.

Not everybody’s cut out for this, but I think there’s a role for everyone in service. If you attended the Board Summit and still can’t visualize yourself serving on a board, you may be “volunteer of the year” material. Hey, they need all of us.

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