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Nonprofit Boards: What Are They and Why YOU Should Get on One! 

Few people know nonprofit organizations like my guest blogger Francesca Rattray. Francesca has spent most of her adult life in the nonprofit world as a fundraiser, trainer, and consultant. She studied Asian Studies at Georgetown University and has an MBA from Boston University’s School of Management. In the following post she offers good advice about how to become involved with nonprofits and help change the world. She can be reached at [email protected]. — Laura Carter --- For many – myself included – the term “board” may at first conjure an image of old white men in a mahogany paneled room sitting around saying, “I second that!” Yeah, I’m not going to lie – many boardrooms still look like that. Makes the idea of working on a board synonymous with “bored.” The truth is, boards are a nonprofit’s most important volunteers – but more than that (I have been trying to give that word a makeover for years. For many volunteer = candy-striper, envelope stuffer, or blue-haired helper at the airport). Volunteers – particularly board members who volunteer their time and talent to a nonprofit – serve more as a community “ambassador” or “envoy” or even “donated expertise” for a nonprofit. Prizes to anyone who comes up even better titles. In fact, nonprofit board members provide strategic oversight, fundraising help, and take legal responsibility for governing a nonprofit. If this sounds scary, it’s because board volunteers do serious work. It’s important for potential board members to remember that getting on a board is more than planning a gala and getting on an organization’s stationery. So why should you care about boards and consider getting on one? Nonprofits do the work in our communities that businesses can’t or won’t (because they’re focused on the bottom line) and that government has stopped doing, because of cuts in funding or political reasons. For nonprofits to continue to serve this important need, bridging the gap between private enterprise and government, they need to stay relevant and focused on who they serve. That’s where you come in. You are the next generation of the community served by nonprofits. If you want to make a difference, help steer nonprofit ships in the direction helping those in need, and create innovative solutions to current problems, you need to serve on a nonprofit board. It’s hard to know where to start or which nonprofits need fresh board members, so here’s a handy guide. 1) Know your passion – What breaks your heart? What keeps you awake at night? As board members, it’s easy to “phone it in” at meetings and galas, but only the burning issues that keep you awake at night and make you fight hard not to cry in public will keep you connected to the cause and the nonprofit. So start with your passion. 2) Match your passion with a nonprofit that shares it – Many organizations in town have searchable databases to discover which nonprofits are doing the things you care about. United Way’s Volunteer Center and the Center for Nonprofit Support can help your search. Guidestar, a national database, lets users search by geographic area, keywords, and program areas. 3) Passion + Knowledge = Great Board Members – Passion represents the central ingredient, but understanding a board member’s roles and responsibilities – such as how to ask for money, how to read nonprofit financials, and what to do in a strategic planning session – will benefit board members and the nonprofits they serve. Look for classes or webinars on becoming effective board members. 4) Commit – Great board members have skin in the game. It’s an honor to serve on a board, but it’s also a commitment. Usually, boards meet monthly or quarterly for two hours during lunch or after work, and many nonprofits have an attendance policy that boots board members for missing two or more meetings. Attending meetings is critical to having a voice in the organization. Be ready to sign on to hours for meetings, events and doing work. Around 5,000 San Antonio nonprofits provide services in health, education, community development, arts, animals and much more. I have been working with leaders of some new nonprofits that would love to attract young, bright and dedicated board members.

click to enlarge gulu-hope-1jpg
One such group just getting off the ground is Gulu Hope, whose work in Northern Uganda focuses on providing care and treatment to children afflicted with a mysterious neurological disease called Nodding Syndrome. The disease, which causes seizures, developmental regression and ultimately death, affects about 10,000 children who already lack access to basic needs, such as clean water and nutrition, in addition to the unique care and treatment Nodding Syndrome requires.

Dr. Sally Baynton, who most recently led the Developmental education program at University of the Incarnate Word, launched Gulu Hope. She and Dr. Suzanne Gazda, a neurologist, have been managing the program in their “free time” -- when Dr. Gazda’s not working with patients in her San Antonio office.


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“The program could thrive with a diverse group of board members from around the country with a variety of backgrounds,” Dr. Gazda (in above picture) notes. “Physicians, Africa aficionados, researchers, and people who care about helping kids with special needs.” Another group, Girls On the Run of Bexar County, exists to inspire girls to set and achieve life goals, incorporating training for a running event into their curriculum.  Minka Misangyi, the organization’s executive director, says Girls On the Run, which currently serves 200 girls in the community, needs board members committed to the mission and willing to volunteer expertise. “Our board needs volunteers who 'get it' – the importance of goal-setting in life – and who want to help the organization raise funds, grow, and build a strong presence in the community,” Ms. Misangyi said.  “When volunteers get involved, the inspiration flows in both directions."

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