Seeking a seat on a charity board? It's getting easier

It used to be only an elite few sat on a charity's board. But with corporate scandals and tight donations, getting involved is getting easier - especially at the top.

Charity watchers say more than 3 million board seats are unfilled. That's good news if you're interested in becoming a board member - especially if you're young, have a special expertise, or represent a minority.

Many charities are anxious to fill those seats and, in the process, revamp their leadership. There are two major reasons: Donors are demanding that charities demonstrate a new and increased commitment to accountability, and that they reflect the communities they serve. That signifies a striking change for many.

Board memberships have been typically doled out to individuals who contributed vast sums of money or celebrities who indirectly brought funds to the charity, experts say. Cash remains essential, but now the focus is on donating a "personally significant amount" rather than set dollars. That clever change is unlocking the door for many who otherwise couldn't afford a seat at the table. And the hoped-for result is a more diverse board and access to a larger donor pool.

"Charities are looking to reflect the community and that means a push to diversify their boards," says Lynda Williams, director of communications for BoardSource, a nonprofit industry consulting group. "A diverse board will bring different perspectives, different ideas, and recommendations that are better informed and more representative of the community's needs."

Currently, a typical nonprofit board member is a white male between 45 and 60, experts say. Minorities make up only 14 percent of boards even though they represent 27 percent of the general population, according to Booz Allen, another nonprofit industry consulting group. A survey by the group finds that board seats are particularly hard to fill at small and mid-size nonprofits and the greatest need is in large cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

To fill and diversify their boards, charities now target "up and comers," typically rising stars in the corporate world and "functional experts" who bring specialized expertise. Public- relations executives, accountants, lobbyists, and legal experts are in the most demand, Ms. Williams adds. "First [board members] need to believe in the charity's mission, but they also need to bring money, a special expertise, or connections to occupy a seat."

Board membership is also demanding, warns Matthew O'Grady, associate executive director for the Management Center of San Francisco, which specializes in finding and training board members. "You can't say 'Oh, I missed that meeting.' You have a legal and ethical obligation to be involved in the charity's strategy and ensure that the charity is accountable to the community," he says. "In the end, you're responsible to donors and the community."

Boards typically meet monthly and are responsible for evaluating a charity's strategy, financial health, and commitment to its mission.

The first step in applying for a board position is to understand what commitment is required. Mr. O'Grady says. "It's usually best to first get an understanding from the charity's management of the requirements and at the same time give them a snapshot of what you hope to bring to the table." In addition, he says potential members should understand their fiduciary responsibilities and its potential legal ramifications, with regard to conflicts of interest and confidentiality.

In the end, however, such demands and moves toward more representative boards should help philanthropic organizations.

"Charities can't afford to appear unaccountable," says Tara May, principal of Divine Rod, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that helps nonprofits develop governance and accountability programs. "Donors remember Enron and other corporate scandals and want the same level of transparency in their planning and financial reporting as they are now demanding in the corporate world.... A more trusting public is a more giving public."

Steps to enter the board room

Are you interested in joining the board of a nonprofit organization but don't know how to go about it? Here are recommendations from BoardSource, an industry group that helps charities and board members:

1. Determine with what kind of organization you would like to join. (Ones involved in healthcare, arts, education, etc.)

2. Take advantage of the local United Way, volunteer centers, or regional associations of charities to locate nonprofits. In addition, visit

3. Gather as much information as you can about what the organization does.

4. Indicate your interest in joining the board to a current board member or the CEO. The organization may want you to join a committee or volunteer in another capacity before you are nominated for board service. A willingness to do this will help your chances.

5. Be prepared to ask questions. Focus on the mission of the organization, its financial stability, constituents, and customers; and the structure of its board. Recruitment is a two-way street. Make sure that the charity asks questions about you.

6. Educate yourself and expect the organization to educate you on the responsibilities and liabilities of a board member.

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