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Board Memberships: To Serve or Not To Serve

2 critical questions to ask before you agree to help lead a nonprofit


by Eilene Zimmerman

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You’ve reached a solid level of professional success, the kids are out of the house and you’ve finally got some extra time. Giving back to the community by serving on the board of a nonprofit can be a satisfying next act. It can also enhance your career by connecting you with other successful professionals and raising your stature, especially if the board is a visible one. An estimated 1.8 million nonprofit board seats turn over annually, according to the recruiter BoardAssist in New York City, and 58 percent of those serving on nonprofit boards are over 50 years old, according to a 2012 survey from BoardSource, an organization focused on good governance practices for nonprofit boards. Serving on a board can be enormously rewarding, but the financial and time commitments are often a surprise to first-timers. Here are the two critical questions to ask before you say yes:

Question No. 1: “How much will I have to donate?”

Ask up front—before you commit—what is expected from you financially, says Michael Montgomery, a Huntington Woods, Michigan-based consultant to nonprofits. He suggests getting a written description of a board member’s responsibilities, including the annual contribution, which can be substantial. Members usually have an obligation to donate money personally and to tap their peers as well—known as the “give and get.” According to BoardAssist, a board member’s annual donation usually averages between $5,000 and $10,000; and larger organizations often ask for more. Carl Vacketta, a former partner at the law firm DLA Piper and now senior counsel there, serves on four nonprofit boards.

     See also: Blueprint for Becoming a Consultant to Nonprofits

During his nine years on the board of the University of Illinois Foundation, Vacketta has given hundreds of thousands of dollars, contributions that have paid the tuition for three women to attend the university’s law school. “That’s been very gratifying,” says Vacketta, noting that he has the resources to give at a high level, something not every board member can do. “These are nonprofits,” he says. “The more you’re willing to give, the more money they will take.”

Question #2: “What is a board member's average time commitment per month?”

The time spent on board-related activities can be substantial, and serving on a committee or in a leadership position can multiply your hours. Gayle Carson, CEO of Carson Research Center, a management consulting and coaching firm in Miami Beach, serves on three boards, often traveling to meetings in other cities. She spends about 12 hours a month on board–related activities. Carl Vacketta spends 5-30 hours a month, including travel time, for his board service to the University of Illinois Foundation. There’s prep time for meetings too. Board members are usually sent a packet—sometimes quite hefty--of materials to study beforehand. “I’ve seen members pull out one number that’s wrong in an 100-page packet,” says Carson.

     See also: "Can volunteer work help me move to a new career?"

Board service is not a decision to make lightly. Roy Cohen, a 58-year old career coach in New York City and author of the Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, has been wrestling with whether to join the board of a global nonprofit. He strongly believes in the organization’s work and its board is very visible, which could be a boon for him professionally. But the financial commitment—$10,000-$20,000 annually—would limit his ability to give to other organizations he supports. Cohen is also worried about the number of hours each month he will be expected to commit. “As a coach, I see clients before, during and after work hours, so I’m on the fence right now about what to do.”

Reasons for joining a board vary. Giving back to the community is usually top of mind, but so are the connections you can make and how being part of a board can be an asset professionally. Those with experience recommend considering only nonprofits with a mission you're passionate about--then volunteering first, to make sure it’s a good fit.

Photo credit: Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images