Joining a Nonprofit Board: What You Need to Know

First Republic Bank
June 18, 2021

As a mission-driven financial institution serving more than 4,000 nonprofits, First Republic understands the importance of aligning purpose with passion. One way for professionals to use their skills to advance social good is to serve on a nonprofit board.

Joining a board is a rewarding experience, and a significant time and financial commitment. To help professionals who are considering board service, we are sharing insights from two First Republic employees who serve on nonprofit boards: Stephanie Bontemps, Chief Risk Officer at First Republic, who has served in a number of board positions since 2010 for the Bay Area housing nonprofit, Hope Solutions; and James Do, Managing Director of Nonprofit Banking at First Republic and board member of two nonprofits providing programs for underserved youth, Thomas House Family Shelter and the Boys and Girls Club of West San Gabriel Valley.

What are the benefits of joining a nonprofit board?

Serving on a nonprofit board is a mutually beneficial relationship. Board members expand their professional network, sharpen their leadership skills, and advance an important cause. Meanwhile, the nonprofit benefits from having a fresh perspective, leveraging skills from experienced professionals, and expanding its supporter network.

“Knowing that I am contributing time, talent and treasure to solving one of society’s most critical problems is personally rewarding,” Bontemps says. “And professionally, it helps me have a more positive attitude toward solving seemingly thorny business challenges.”

Board service gives people “the exponential ability to actively engage in a cause that they care deeply about,” Do says. “I’m a big fan of giving back to the next generation, education and mentorship; as a board member... I get to contribute to an entire organization that’s helping create opportunities for children.”

What are the responsibilities of a nonprofit board?

The board of directors is mainly responsible for:

  • Managing the health and sustainability of the nonprofit’s assets. This includes financials, facilities, staff members, and even the organization’s reputation.
  • Ensuring that all of the nonprofit’s programs and activities advance the mission, and that all decisions made by board members are in the best interest of the mission. 
  • Ensuring that the nonprofit is in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations and internal bylaws.

Each of these responsibilities includes a host of considerations. Internally, board members play a significant role in strategic planning, financial decision-making, and fundraising. Externally, board members are expected to be advocates and ambassadors on behalf of the organization.

Board service is a very hands-on experience, Do advises: “Be ready to tackle real-life issues facing the organization and actively build infrastructure, whether it’s maximizing a relationship with existing partners such as accounting firms or developing a fundraising strategy during a pandemic. The structure of a board will vary depending on the size and longevity of the organization, but nonprofits as a whole tend to be thinly staffed, so your expertise and knowledge will go a long way on a board seat.”

As Do says, depending on the nonprofit, the size and structure of the board may vary. Larger organizations may have board committees that handle certain subsets of responsibilities, such as fundraising. Common roles include:

  • Board Chair: Oversees the board and its committees, ensures good governance, and works with the nonprofit’s CEO.
  • Board Secretary: Attends and keeps accurate minutes from all board meetings.
  • Board Treasurer: Understands and manages the financial responsibilities of the board.

Since joining the board at Hope Solutions in 2010, “my role has evolved year to year, which has kept it interesting for me,” Bontemps says. “Serving as board chair might sound like the biggest challenge, but it was far more challenging serving on the search committee for a new Executive Director and leading the re-naming committee. As chair of the finance committee this year, our committee also has input into the budget, insurance policies, bank relationships, and accounting. Ensuring our budget is reasonable is foundationally important because nonprofits often have less room for financial variance than for-profit corporations.”

What kinds of board opportunities do nonprofits offer?

In addition to a board of directors, many nonprofits offer other leadership opportunities. Consider which option may be right for your professional experience, expertise, and level of financial commitment:

  • Advisory Board: Subject matter experts convene to advise senior leadership on specific topics and support good governance. A nonprofit may have more than one advisory board depending on their mission—for example, a local food bank may have an advisory board for community outreach, while a medical research organization may have a scientific advisory board.
  • Junior Board: While junior boards have no official fiscal or governance responsibilities, joining a junior board offers young professionals the chance to grow leadership skills, bring a fresh perspective, and recruit younger supporters.

When evaluating an opportunity to serve on a board, find out what your role would be, what is expected of you and how you can uniquely add value,” Do says. “Be thoughtful about what you bring to the table and how you complement the industry expertise and skills of the rest of the board.”

What to ask before joining a board

If you are considering joining a nonprofit Board, here are some questions to help you find the right  nonprofit and role:

  • Joining a nonprofit board should be personally and professionally fulfilling. What causes are important to you, and what type of volunteer work is most fulfilling to you?
  • Joining a nonprofit board is a significant time commitment. How much time can you devote to board service?
  • Board members take an active role in fundraising. Are you able and willing to assist a nonprofit with fundraising?
  • Board members need to make decisions as a group, with input from senior leadership. Are you comfortable with collaborative decision-making?

“Nonprofit boards are made up of volunteers of all different backgrounds,” Bontemps says. “This creates a robust environment for sharing different ideas. But it can also be difficult to reach consensus, so you have to be patient, listen well and ensure you allot enough time for important decisions.”

It is also important to do your research on any organization you are interested in working with. If you haven’t already, volunteer with the organization. Speak with current board members, leadership, and staff members. Read financial statements; you can find a nonprofit’s most important financial statements on sources like GuideStar and CharityNavigator. If possible, visit their office or the site of a program to see firsthand how things are run. Issues to consider include:

  • Programs: Do the programs align with the mission? Are programs run efficiently and effectively?
  • Financials: Is the organization financially sound? Do board members receive regular financial reports or approve the annual budget?
  • Strategy: Does the organization have a strategic plan that the board evaluates regularly?
  • Senior Leadership: How does the board work with the CEO and senior staff? I: the nonprofit’s leadership satisfied with board performance, and vice versa?  
  • Board structure: How is the board, and any committees, structured? Would you be able to serve on a committee before joining the board full-time?
  • Board governance: Are there regulations to prevent conflicts of interest or other issues?

When joining a board for the first time, come in with an open mind, Do says: “Nonprofit organizations are fundamentally mission-driven. Half of the board will be mission-focused and the other half will be financially focused, so it’s important to figure out a way to find common ground. Everyone may have different perspectives, but as a board, you’re all working towards the same mission and same objective.”

The process of joining a board differs depending on the organization. Just as you will research a nonprofit, its senior leadership and existing board members will want to get to know you through the recruitment process, so understanding your motivations and commitment level will help you find the right fit. For both parties, the goal is to form a mutually beneficial relationship that advances the nonprofit’s mission.

First Republic Bank is proud to be a mission-driven bank with a commitment to Board service as part of our Corporate Social Responsibility model. To learn more about how First Republic combines passion with purpose, read our Corporate Social Responsibility report.

The views of the interviewee of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank. This information is governed by our Terms and Conditions of Use.