My Experience Building a Nonprofit Board of Directors
Good nonprofit board leaders have a strong personal connection to the mission, are driven to serve, and create impact
It feels good to do good by others.
If only feeling good were enough to generate the community change needed to sustain the vital work of nonprofits.
Charities, also known as nonprofits, often create spaces for volunteer service experiences — a way to feel good by giving time to the community. These organizations begin with an idea, combined with a founder’s passion and vision. Programs require management and oversight, which means charities come with an operational cost to sustain the work of the organization. There is also a time commitment and personal responsibility to oversee the organization’s assets and mission that rests in the board’s hands.
Nonprofit board directors are driven by complex motivations that inspire calculated risk-taking, and a leadership role with accountability to the community. Driven by more than a desire to feel good, their motivation is a combination of ambition to create change, moral obligation, and a guiding set of principles, values, beliefs, and experiences.
Peer pressure to perform
When a fellow board member suggested I write about building a nonprofit board I accepted the challenge, and then quickly found myself unsure where to begin.
“Write what you know” is the standard advice bestowed upon aspiring writers. If applied to the nonprofit sector, these words of wisdom might translate as “work with what you have.”
This is what I know about building a nonprofit board of directors — it is a leadership process that begins with knowing yourself.
A central mission of philanthropy is to help create change in communities. To succeed requires understanding the driving forces of change. The science of mind and behavior, responses to reward, resistance, and the need to feel ownership and involvement are all part of changemaking.
In my experience, the people most committed and satisfied with their role in board service are people whose passion for the cause aligns with their life’s purpose. Until we understand our motivations, it’s hard to make sense of the motives of others. By sharing what I know to be true for me, I hope others will gain insights and build on the lessons I have learned.
Spotting a glimmer of possibility to effect change in a promising organization
My board service journey began unexpectedly with an invitation from a recruiter who described how my skills could be applied to serve a higher purpose. I knew the nonprofit could improve and benefit from my contributions. I saw an opportunity to collaborate with interesting people who respect and share my interests, values, and passion for our community. The opportunity aligned with my desire to have a positive impact on my local community. It also satisfied my desire to learn more about human service agencies in my local region — if we can’t peel back the claws of poverty here in the economic powerhouse of Silicon Valley, where can we?
My attraction to nonprofit board service
The record number of children and youth experiencing financial hardship and poverty in America is alarming. Economic injustice is undermining the conditions for the next generation to thrive. It’s been called the moral shame of Silicon Valley — and it’s getting worse.
Regionally, in California, child poverty ranges from approximately 20 percent in the Bay Area to nearly 30 percent in the Central Coast and Los Angeles County. Balancing housing costs and maintaining access to skilled professional work is difficult in high-cost regions.
These conditions inspired and attracted me to serve as Acting Chair of the Board of Directors with My New Red Shoes, headquartered in Redwood City, California, a region also known as Silicon Valley.
MNRS operates with the belief that no child should struggle to have their basic needs met or experience social discrimination, exclusion or inequity. For a decade and half, MNRS has helped close the clothing gap by delivering new shoes, clothing, or other school items to more than 90,000 students. Today, MNRS is working hard to create programs that offer foundational support to our community’s most vulnerable youth.
While clothing and shoes may seem trivial, I assure you, if you have ever gone without appropriately fitting shoes or clothing, or other basics — it is no small matter. The gift of new shoes and clothing activates confidence and a sense of belonging in youth who experience a mix of emotions from shame, exclusion, invisibility through no fault of their own. While there are resource centers to provide direct material goods, these goods are often in short supply and are not always “new.”
Making a positive impact and difference in the community is a typical draw for potential board members. Driven by a need to feel ownership and involvement in making changes in my local community was my initial attraction to board service too. I also recognized how these systems and programs apply to humanitarian initiatives in other regions, and this made my commitment even stronger.
Stepping into a new pair of shoes brings personal revelations and continued learning
My first interview for a board role was a mix of curiosity and apprehension. While community service and humanitarian work are a familiar part of my identity, the term “philanthropist” was less familiar — in my mind, the two were slightly different. The title of ‘philanthropist’ seemed best reserved for someone with a legacy of wealth. It took some time for me to warm up to the idea that good work done in others’ service is a critical component of philanthropy.
A few years into board service, I have embraced the idea that philanthropy is a practice, and those who engage in nonprofit leadership are true philanthropists. The practice guides my giving of both time and resources. It inspires and sustains my efforts through the unexpected challenges of board leadership.
Making sense of ‘the cause’ — social and historical context that set the conditions for current issues
Family is the centering force of my life. Our household’s “family business” is founded on being creators; primarily of peace and stability — two factors dependent on a foundational sense of security and a strong civil society.
In the words of entrepreneur and industrialist Henry. J. Kaiser, “to live abundantly and take part in a productive economy, our people must have health.” Kaiser was a person true to his principles, offering employees the world’s first prepaid health plan, and founding what would become Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest health managed care program.
Today, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) is a leading source of trusted information on national health issues and a major partner and contributor to research on social determinants of health. Living conditions, including access to good food, water, and housing; the quality of schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods; and the composition of social networks and nature of social relations are all factors considered in the broader set of social determinates of health.
Research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) shows the impact of structural inequities, and how these factors influence and shape outcomes for individuals from sunrise to sunset (cradle to grave).
The NIH describes social determinates as root causes of health inequity:
Health disparities are quantifiable symptoms of broader social and economic challenges rooted in structural and systemic barriers across sectors. Living in disadvantaged neighborhoods with exposure to chemical stressors, violence, discrimination, residential segregation, and psychosocial stress, and limited access to healthy foods, can affect a person’s ability to stay healthy — becoming barriers to health.
Life offers a mix of influences over a lifetime and we are free to interpret these experiences as we choose. How we respond and the stories we tell ourselves have a significant impact on our self-perception. Many of our early life experiences determine our habits and path through life.
Finding a way forward by connecting-the-dots and giving back to the community that gave me so much
From my earliest memories, I knew my dad had an unusual childhood and that his experience somehow meant I was “lucky.” At five years old, Santa Clara County, also known as Silicon Valley, placed my dad and his two older siblings into the care of two separate foster homes, while his other siblings remained with their biological parents. It was difficult for everyone involved. In high school, he emancipated from foster care and by some miracle, a lot of kindness, and hard work, he emerged as an independent adult.
Watching my dad navigate his career and fatherhood was bittersweet. He is charming, thoughtful, and kind, with a gift for building and design. I observed a mixture of messages from his actions and words, that didn’t always work in his favor. These leftover fragments from the confusion of his childhood were things that blindsided him and often made him work harder than necessary to achieve an acceptable outcome. From this example, it was easy to see the lasting effect childhood can have on self-esteem and lifelong decision-making. I came to appreciate showing children they matter as a necessary part of healthy child development.
Embrace hard truths with an open mind and a willingness to spot the positive and appreciate what you have
A few years ago, around the time I joined my current board, I discovered a biological father — a separate person from the only man I had ever known as my dad.
This news was shocking in a number of ways that forced me to confront some hard truths. Being new to board service for an organization dedicated to serving children and youth in challenging situations kept things in perspective through this unexpected chapter of my life.
The only father I had ever known is still my dad — nothing changes this relationship. This new information brought the gift of more family, enriching my life, and adding a surprise twist to my personal story. I discovered seven siblings and reunited with an older brother who remembered me as an infant. It was an incredibly confusing time, but I will never regret knowing the truth.
The truth forced me to relearn my family story and reconcile the sharp contrast to the identity I developed through my childhood and well into my adult life. I realized how truly fortunate I am that my life unfolded the way it did. It took time to make sense of it all.
Until an ancestry test suggested otherwise, I had never doubted for a moment that I was my father’s daughter — and I still am. This experience’s silver lining is knowing that my dad’s early entry into a loving foster home likely set the conditions for him to embrace and accept me as his daughter. Being his daughter was a formative part of my personality and my overall approach to spotting possibilities in problems.
The point of sharing these very personal experiences is that family relationships have a long-term influence on self-perception, self-esteem, and our sense of belonging.
Once you become an outsider among your own, the feeling is hard to shake
My early environment offered an opportunity to take responsibility for myself, develop a commitment to action, and connect positively with others. I learned about the complexities of family relationships, the consequences of caregiver stress, and how diverse family structures shape our sense of agency — the feeling of control over our actions and their results.
I remember an occasional look in my mom’s eyes — a mix of fear and uncertainty. My mom’s experience came from living in blended families, combined with losing her older sister to an accidental overdose as a teen. This created a sharp contrast to many of her peers at an affluent public school in Woodside, California. In her community, students were more likely to go on to Ivy League colleges than to experience a sibling’s death.
Giving back as a family value
My mom’s relationship offered a unique form of emotional support, a sense of belonging, and meaning. Her stories infused my early vocabulary with words to identify and describe dysfunctional relationships. She openly discussed stories of trauma, neglect, the juvenile justice system, the importance of access to independence for people with disabilities, social workers’ roles, family healthcare, and the value of being an advocate.
Thinking back on this now, I realize many of these stories were probably more than what most parents share with their children. I didn’t know any different. Knowing about the hardships people face helped me better understand the world.
The kindness of strangers is a cycle to be paid-forward
My parents made a dedicated effort to step-up to the responsibility of supporting at-risk families and foster youth. Our house became a foster home for three small children for a while when I was in elementary school. Five children between age two and seven was a considerable responsibility, and I watched my mom shoulder most of the parental caregiving stress.
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.” — Toni Morrison
California’s rural and urban regions have significant differences
As a young girl, I loved school. It was my sanctuary. My childhood began in California’s Central Valley where tomatoes, almonds, and grapes grow in abundance. The Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Around age ten, my family moved to the rural Sierra Nevada foothills. The foothill communities are small historic towns with Old West architecture and a pioneering vibe. It was hard not to notice the difference between my family’s lifestyle and our relatives living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Having a relationship with these three places offered a unique perspective “between worlds.”
Social norms, expectations, and cultural values between families of rural versus urban areas
In my experience, people from rural communities socialize youth to place a high value on work, productivity, and community participation. Costly prestigious schooling in particular, and higher-education beyond a bachelor’s degree in general, is ignored, or even frowned upon as unnecessary.
Questions like, “what kind of job are you going to do with that degree when you’re finished,” is often followed by a cost-benefit assessment of the cost of housing and the school’s tuition expense. The final consideration is often related to how these decisions might take away from family and friends’ social support, including work in the family business.
Like my peers, rural social norms, expectations, and cultural values influenced my decision about which colleges to apply to, and which one to attend. I choose to stay within one hundred miles of my family and opted to live with my grandmother. Chronic conditions had taken a toll on her ability to live independently in her final years. Given our early closeness, the arrangement benefited both of us.
Frustration and fear hitched to financial insecurity
The families and adults in my local communities worked hard and struggled to earn a living compared to the examples I saw in the San Francisco Bay Area. Looking back, I can see how a high-dependence on low wage employment and the need for affordable housing was out of alignment with the talent and potential I saw in hard-working people. Most people around me were legitimately worried about “money,” and felt disempowered about their situations and discouraged about future prospects.
Grandmothers can play an influential role in developing life skills
As a young child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother after school. If my storytelling went long, she would sit me down at the kitchen table with a pen in my hand to write out my thoughts while she cooked dinner. One day in first grade, I surprised her by writing a letter to Ronald Reagan about my serious concerns about the country’s problems. He didn’t respond. (It was 1986, and he was busy being President).
I kept writing.
I was a slow writer, terrible at spelling. These factors didn’t stop me from trying to pour my thoughts out onto paper. I would share my musing aloud with my great-grandmother and grandma, in the kitchen, while they prepared dinner. (This led to a life long pattern of doing more talking than cooking in the kitchen.) They were tough critics and big supporters of my interest in current events.
Set high expectations, rooted in past success to bypass the trap of reflecting only on potentially negative outcomes
You might wonder how my early life experiences are relevant to recruiting a nonprofit board of directors. Bear with me.
First grade was a strange crossroads for me. It was the year we opened our home to become a foster family. The pressure of caring for five young kids brought my mom excitement and tremendous stress.
I was a ridiculously serious child, and as serious children often do — I responded to my parent’s distress by being as self-sufficient and responsible as possible. As the oldest, I tried to help by taking care of my younger brother. I also challenged myself to do things well beyond my comfort to bring my parents pride and joy.
I entered a couple of school competitions — a poetry contest, and a talent show. Looking back, this seems like a pretty ambitious way to win my parent’s approval. I am not sure it was necessary, and I probably would not attempt the same things today, but those early results fed my tolerance for pressure, and I learned to stay-the-course through difficulties.
I won the poetry contest for my grade, and it brought me my first moment on a microphone, reciting my poem for the trustees of the county board of education.
Playing the accordion in my school talent show was a rush of excitement; it was also a challenge to overcome my fear of performing in front of an audience.
Young performers learn to apply attention and awareness to self-improvement
Playing the accordion leaves no time for distraction. It requires both hands, it’s extremely heavy for a child, and reading sheet music only adds to the challenge. Every movement and moment serves a purpose.
Learning to keep my focus while simultaneously juggling multiple things, without losing rhythm and flow probably made me a slightly more frustrated and irritable kid at times. Even so, I lived. This type of mind-body integration forms life skills that come in handy — even if I could not possibly recognize it at the time.
Looking back I now see how these experiences were helpful in forcing me to be more a more flexible thinker. This type of thinking helped me to successfully start new businesses while running existing ones, and scale to the next level.
Connecting life experience with the present nonprofit mission
My love of learning continued in my teen years. It kept me focused on my future, and away from things I could not control in other parts of my life. This thinking habit carried me to a better place.
I worked hard to earn good grades and stayed involved with sports, and community service through Rotary’s Interact program and a local church. I learned to pack holiday dinners and took delivery assignments to low-income families in rural areas. I saw the burden of the silent hardship some of my peers faced — how it robs people of hope for their future.
At sixteen, I served on my first humanitarian mission, to build a preschool in an emerging country. I recognized poverty’s reach spanned beyond county lines and country borders. The simple act of looking into another person’s eyes reveals the unmistakable toll financial insecurity takes on the human spirit.
My teen years allowed me to witness some tough realities. I experienced the tragic loss of a teen family friend who was shot and killed over a $100 stereo dispute. His life easily could have been spared, had he and his family not been under chronic financial pressure. Attending his funeral left a lasting impression. I promised myself I would find a way to leave this region of California as soon as possible and never return.
I saw family members “get sober” and embark on the journey of recovery. Their struggles and the benefits of sobriety were transparent. I learned what happens to high school students whose parents go to jail (hint: it ends poorly). These events served as cautionary tales — obstacles to be avoided. I used what I learned.
As I got older, I realized the promise I had made to myself meant not only breaking away from my environment; it also meant making the transition to a new community, and new ways of thinking. For me, education was the only way out. Shortly after finishing college, I left the Central Valley.
My thirties brought another wave of life experiences as the parent of young children. I changed direction in my career and spent some time teaching in K-12, and one summer teaching special education. All my experiences bundled together to solidify my commitment to addressing barriers that derail futures and outpower hopes and dreams. When the invitation to serve on MNRS’ Board arrived, I was ready.
Life experience and the practice of philanthropy yield questions for new board candidates
Recruiting new board members can be exciting, and complicated. It can be difficult to know where to begin asking questions. Generally speaking, I look for adaptable and flexible people, capable of working across nonprofit, business, and government sectors.
I have a set of questions I ask myself after meeting a potential new board member:
1. Is there a heartfelt connection to the mission and a commitment to supporting community equity, diversity, and inclusion. (It’s all downhill if they miss this one)
2. Are they clear about their intentions for board service? Are they more motivated by creating a meaningful impact, advancing their professional careers, or enhancing their resume? (Red flag for the latter response)
3. Do they seek to understand the wisdom, beliefs, needs, aspirations, and life experiences of the people the organization strives to serve?
4. Will they have the patience and willingness to invest time in research and fact-finding to unpack the complex issues?
5. Do they understand the social and historical context that set the conditions for current issues?
6. Are they self-starters willing to consider applying all the resources they can contribute, including strengths, professional skills, networks, and influence?
7. Do they have special skills or knowledge about the population the organization hopes to serve? Will they share their knowledge and skills for others’ benefit, or will they need prompting to participate?
8. Do they have expertise in functional areas like communication and finance? Fundraising and capacity building are both vital to the organization’s future.
9. Are they the type of person who would take a principled stand on ethics by going to an organization the board has concerns about to ask them to clean up their practice?
10. If necessary, would this person be the type of leader who would be willing to report predatory or unethical practices to authorities or take legal action?
What should protective board members know
Prospective board leaders should know that no one expects you to have all the answers to systemic problems.
An open mind, awareness, a desire to work hard, and a willingness to meet people where they are today, are a good place to start. A willingness to leverage your financial and human capital, and listen and learn about ways to solve significant issues are a must.
Prospective board members should be self-aware and courageous, willing to approach solutions with innovative mindsets, and unafraid of challenging the status quo.
For good governance, board members must be internally motivated to stay informed of current events and engaged with issues impacting their communities.
Tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, and an understanding that sometimes there will not be a simple solution are wonderful qualities in fellow board members.
Prospective board leaders to Silicon Valley nonprofits need to understand the social phenomenon that one of my trusted advisors calls, the Alice in Wonderland complex — meaning, a place of big dreams, and a distorted distribution of wealth; millionaires and billionaires living in the same zip codes as families struggling with homelessness.
Anything is possible in Silicon Valley, including the ability to afford an end to child poverty.
Understand the purpose and function of the Board of Directors
For people new to nonprofits, you should know that corporations and nonprofits are legally required to have a board of directors.
To incorporate a nonprofit, obtain a tax exemption, and apply for a bank account, you must have a board to represent the organization as its legal voice. Board members are more than seat holders. Incorporating as a nonprofit opens the door for funding from trusts and foundations.
Board participation is expected in fundraising. Funds are overseen by board members tasked with guiding decisions aimed at positive outcomes for the organization, and ensuring the organization fulfills its commitments to the public. The board provides leadership and takes responsibility for the present and future health of an organization.
Board members are responsible for the awareness and fulfillment of governance responsibilities, complying with applicable laws and bylaws, conducting board business effectively and efficiently, and being accountable for their performance.
Ideally, nonprofit or social enterprise boards act as a high performance collective to make critical decisions and build organizational capacity to produce results that advance the mission. The board plays a leading, proactive role as a thought partner to the Executive Director/CEO.
Learn the fundamental legal duties of all board members
At a minimum, the law prescribes legal duties that nonprofit board members are required to meet through standards of conduct with three primary legal obligations known as the duty of care, the duty of loyalty, and the duty of obedience.
Social enterprises, nonprofits, or start-up boards are working boards. Board members who plan to check-in at quarterly meetings, and then go along their merry way are not the board leaders needed during times of significant change and uncertainty.
Engaged board members generate innovative models and solutions to intractable problems. They help to steer the organization towards growth and lasting stability. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not all high-performers are self-starters. Some need coaching to figure out where to apply their strengths. For those new to board service, it can help to begin by defining the basics of a board member’s duty to the organization.
The duty of care is a board member’s legal responsibility to participate actively in making decisions on behalf of the organization. Exercising one’s best judgment is a key component of this responsibility.
The duty of loyalty means board members must be committed to advancing the mission’s best interests above their own personal or professional interests when acting on behalf of the organization. This is sometimes described as being an ambassador of the organizations.
A board member’s duty of obedience refers to the legal responsibilities of ensuring the organization complies with federal, state, and local laws.
The majority of nonprofits are small nonprofits, less than $1M in operating revenue. Board members of small nonprofits often have little previous “on the job” training to effectively govern a nonprofit organization even if they have an advanced degree. It’s important to approach this fact as a learning experience for all involved.
When I first joined the board, I read books, articles and signed up for as many workshops as time would allow to learn the ropes, be a good team member, and become a constructive contributor and source of strength for the organization. I am not the kind of person who feels “bored.” There is no shortage of people or things that I would like to spend time with, and this has proven to be an advantage.
People often overestimate their knowledge of the rules and regulations that govern nonprofits. It will benefit the entire organization to have board members who enjoy learning, reading, and researching issues. Be willing to challenge your own assumptions and reach out to a more experienced board leaders. Continuous learning is an opportunity to meet new people in the community and learned from other’s experiences.
Stretch the limits of philanthropy’s big three T’s: time, talent and treasure
To truly live up to philanthropy’s promise requires equal amounts of imagination and collaboration across industries and a willingness to try something new and do more than what is required.
Creating measurable benefits, impact, and opportunities in today’s circumstances demands flexible big picture thinking.
Drawing upon a board of directors’ collective skills, knowledge, and shared values allow philanthropic leaders a framework to recruit new board directors capable of advancing the organization’s mission.
In the past, fulfilling a board role meant contributing time, talent, and networks, along with a meaningful financial contribution. If we hope to address systemic barriers adequately, we need leaders whose lived experiences reflect the people we hope to elevate and empower.
Foundations are not fully comfortable with developing goals based on the lived experience of those the organization strives to serve, as much as the available data and evidence. This area is a work in progress.
Differentiate income and wealth to create a seat at the table for middle-class led philanthropy
The old model of philanthropic board service is out of alignment with the modern age. We hear it repeated time and time that the survival of democracy depends on a strong middle-class. The same could be said of philanthropy. Middle-class Americans give a greater share of their discretionary income to charity than their wealthier peers. Their voices should be part of the discussion of nonprofit boards, but outdated practices still linger.
A new, more inclusive board leadership model is emerging, and with it, a new generation of philanthropists and social entrepreneurs is striving to meet local and global problems in 2020. This group of people understands the value of working with what is available — a trait that’s not only practical; it is necessary for the current climate.
New board leaders must be highly resourceful and resilient to adapt to a rapidly changing environment where causes collide and morph into unfamiliar formations amid a landscape of environmental degradation, a pandemic, a crisis of leadership, and the most significant economic recession of our lifetime.
Embracing one’s own philanthropic choices can be a powerful driver of change
Sharing my personal story and the turning points that shape my view of social justice and philanthropy helped me I realize how much board service has taught me. The experience revealed qualities about myself and others that I had not noticed before. The teamwork, shared responsibilities, and collaboration with fellow board members is rewarding; it keeps my heart invested in advancing the mission.
I hope to expand the conversation about nonprofit board leadership and offer insights based on experience about the type of people who serve as good stewards of public trust and remain dedicated to fulfilling their nonprofit’s mission through good times and bad. At best, writing about these experiences may contribute toward changing the image of a good fit for board leadership. The ritual of automatically tapping board members from exclusive networks of generational wealth is outdated. At a minimum, if my experiences can help one person gain a different perspective of board service — that is enough,