(Article previously published to LinkedIn on 1.27.17)
We all have that friend who seems to be “on the board” of every organization in town. Disease Awareness? Yep, on the board since 2009. Professional Networking? Of course! High school and college alma maters, civic programs, secret social societies – the list is endless. At some point we all ask the same question, “How?” How do I join a board? Where do I begin? I like the idea of being a board member, but is it really worth my time? I’m often asked these same questions from young professionals looking to get more involved in their community. So, in response, I’ve written an article to outline the 3 basic ways most people land a board seat, and I hope you find it helpful.
The traditional method for joining a board may sound intuitive, yet many people still find the process challenging. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be keeping that board seat warm in no time.
1. Find the right organization Start by identifying an organization whose mission you find interesting and rewarding. Maybe a coworker regularly attends events for an organization focused on inner-city children, and the group’s mission sounds interesting to you. Ask your coworker if you can attend the next event with her, and inquire more about the mission and vision for the organization. If you feel inspired by the group’s passion and purpose, then maybe this is a group worth exploring. Do your best to meet at least 1 board member and 2 other general members in the next 60 days.
2. Voice your intentions The next step under the traditional method is to voice your intentions. Simply mention to members of the organization that you would like to get more involved and possibly join the board one day. Many board hopefuls take this opportunity to over-complicate things. It’s not weird to be upfront about your intentions to join a board. No one is going to think your heart isn’t attached to the cause because you want to be in a director’s seat one day. Being honest about your long-term goal lets others in the organization know that you are committed to the mission and intend to invest serious time (which is a goldmine for retiring board members).
3. Join a committee Now that you’ve attended some events or meetings and voiced your interest to a few members, the next step is to join a committee. In the traditional method, you must first prove that you have the dedication and diligence to be a board member before anyone on the board will sponsor you. When choosing a committee, you need to consider 2 criteria:
Your interest: Joining a committee is an important training ground for the board. You will have a greater responsibility than general members, and most importantly, you will have to invest more of your time to prove yourself. As with anything in life, do not waste your limited time on earth doing something that doesn’t interest you. Have a quick 10 minute meeting with each committee chair, and figure out what interests you the most.
Board need: Some critics think boards meet once a quarter to compare clothing, argue over mundane tidbits, and go out for happy hour afterward patting each other on the back. The truth is – productive boards exhibit a great deal of decision making, idea creation/implementation, and problem solving… ok then probably a happy hour. The point is, healthy boards get things done, and they can always get more things done, quicker and better. Thus, every board has a need, and that’s where you come in. Whether it’s your new ideas, your finance savvy, your connections, your hardnosed execution, or your natural leadership – you have something to offer any organization. Throw your humility aside and think, “Where does this organization need help, and how can I help most?” Marry your skillset with an organization’s need, and you will have the board begging you to join them.
4. Find a sponsor OK, you’ve spent the past 6 months impressing your committee by elevating its productivity; now it’s time to find a sponsor. No, not because of all the happy hours you’re now attending – a different sponsor. A sponsor is a board member that has a vested interest in developing you into a board member to either supplement a board need or replace an outgoing member. Here’s another area where many board hopefuls over-complicate the process. You do not have to be best friends with every board member to be elected to the board. In fact – I often introduce myself to some board members after I join a board. Instead of investing months building dozens of individual relationships, focus on building a relationship with a sponsor, and then let him/her introduce you to the “people you need to meet”. By doing this, you’ll bypass the often wildly inaccurate process of inferring the political landscape of a board through your own one-on-one interactions, and you will waste no time trying to impress non-influential members. Being a sponsor requires time, patience, and the risk of reputational capital, so convincing a board member to sponsor you can prove difficult if you’re not careful.
When choosing a sponsor, look for a board member that is influential within the board, but also has a good reputation for recruitment. You know that friend who always recommends a new band in hopes that you fall in love with them? Then every time you rock-out to one of their songs, your friend instantly reminds you that it was he/she that recommended that band first. That same desire for beloved recommendations transcends bands and music. Influential board members take pride in recommending and recruiting the top talent for the board, so when selecting a sponsor, be sure he/she has that same motivation.
5. Sponsor recommendation Now you must convince your sponsor that you are the next chart-topping band. This shouldn’t be too difficult since you’ve already voiced your interest and contributed time to a committee, but your sponsor will want to ensure that his/her name will not be tarnished by vouching for the wrong person. Therefore, it is important to be upfront about your time commitments. Can you handle a 4 hour/week level of engagement? Do you have any busy seasons that could greatly change your commitment throughout the year? Planning a wedding? Having a child? Switching jobs? There’s no problem with having a life outside of the board, but your transparency will be greatly appreciated by your sponsor as he/she promotes you within the organization.
6. Impress board influencers Finally, it’s time to start impressing the other influencers. Theoretically, you should have been doing this alongside steps 3-4, but now is the time to take it to the next level. When your sponsor officially recommends you for the board, DO NOT let off the throttle. Now is the time to start wooing all other board members. Volunteer for more work streams, attend more events, speak-up in more meetings. Do whatever you can to stand-out and be recognized. Your sponsor will be your loudest advocate, but only if you visibly advocate for yourself.
So, to recap…
1 Find the right organization
2 Voice your intentions
3 Join a committee
4 Find a sponsor
5 Have your sponsor recommend you for the board
6 Impress other board influencers
The second method for joining a board is pretty simple and self-explanatory: buy your way on. OK, I know “buy your way on” sounds pretty bad. But why? You should never be ashamed of donating a significant sum of money to an organization dedicated to improving an issue/disease/condition that is important to you. Moreover, the fact that your generous financial investment into the organization grants you a governing seat within that organization is no different than how for-profit companies operate with their investors. Money is the engine for growth. So, if you provide the engine, you should have a say in where it travels. Pretty simple.
Before you sign the check, please consult the traditional method, and be open and transparent with the board about your level of engagement. Remember, we are under the premise that this organization is close to your heart. Under such a premise, the only question you should ask yourself is, “What does this organization need the most?” Does it just need $10,000 to fund an awareness campaign, but otherwise enjoys a productive, motivated leadership team and a loyal membership base? Or is the organization bleeding members, with a divided board that operates at a reality show-level of dysfunction? Or anywhere in between? Do the research first, and let the current state of the organization be your guide. If the board has a need that you could fulfill beyond the financial state of the organization, and you have the time and capability to add value, then make those intentions known. However, if the organization is clearly not in need of your skills, then make the donation, take the board seat, and try to learn from those around you without disrupting the system. Donating your way onto a board is neither hurtful nor unprofessional in its own right. Gifting financially to an organization, however, only to deplete the board of its cohesion and productivity is both hurtful and unprofessional.
Make Your Own (MYO) Method
“I don’t believe in learning from other people’s pictures. I think you should learn from your own interior vision of things and discover… as though there had never been anybody.” ~ Orson Welles
Who says you need to infiltrate a long-standing organization or make a hefty financial contribution just to get on a board? All you really need is a few like-minded friends, a few bucks, and a few common goals. Create an organization that strives to achieve those goals using the few bucks you have and – voilà – you and your friends are now board members! What’s more, you are not only a board member, but you are also founder and chair… or executive leader, or board commander, or whatever you want to call yourself. It’s your treehouse, you make the rules! This method may require more time than the traditional and financial approaches, but it is has the potential to be far more rewarding, exciting, and impressive.
This article does not intend to explain how to create your own board – that’s a topic for another day. While the MYO method is a guaranteed way to call yourself a board member of an organization, the commitment required to build, sustain, and grow an organization is far more intensive than joining an already established organization. As someone who created his own organization, I can attest to its difficulty. I luckily knew a dozen talented and connected young leaders in the city that could help me stand-up an organization, and had the backing of a large national organization. Yet, even with these two major advantages, I was forced to learn many tough lessons and gained a sincere appreciation for the challenges associated with creating your own organization.
To make your own organization, however, you don’t always have to start from scratch. You may unknowingly be a board member already. If you and a few friends have been informally helping a certain group of people for a period of time, then guess what? You all just became board members! Congratulations! There is no definitive parameters for what constitutes a board member, and there’s no national governing body revoking people’s ability to call themselves “board members”. I used this method a few years ago. A few friends and I were giving a little money and a lot of time to a charitable endeavor that involved students at our alma mater, La Salle University. After helping for a little while, we realized we needed to make our efforts more “official”, so we can articulate to our donors and those outside the organization what we’re doing. Just like that, overnight, we all became different directors – myself becoming the Expansion Director. Cool, right? Another board membership on my resume, and it happened while I slept. Sure we made up the titles, but we didn’t make-up the money we donated, the time we committed, and the good work we did. So in the end, the title “Board of Directors” is only as important as a director’s contribution to the board and the board’s contribution to the community.
Just remember that no matter what path you choose, always be 100% active and present. It’s always better to be active on 1 board than aloof on 10.
I hope this guide helped you chart your path to the boardroom. Please leave a comment or inbox me with any questions.
Sean W Hand