If you’re a solo trying to break into a new practice area, beef up your existing corporate experience or learn new skills, then serving on a non-profit board may be just the ticket. This piece from Fast Company touts the many professional benefits of serving on a non-profit board which include:
1. Learn about an issue outside of (or complementary to) your area of business expertise–whether it’s housing, healthcare, the environment, economic development, healthcare, or education, just to name a few.
2. Gain new perspectives by engaging with people from diverse backgrounds, including board and staff members, the nonprofit’s funders, and the community it serves. This can help enrich your awareness of your business’s and clients’ broader base of customers and shareholders here in the US and globally.
3. Better understand the role and responsibilities of corporate governance by serving on a board yourself.
4. Experience the perspective of the CEO and board of the corporation, including the actual responsibility of envisioning the organization’s greater potential, and creating and achieving the organization’s revenue/business model.
5. Have an opportunity to step up to lead, by chairing a committee, or serving as an officer; you will learn how to build consensus through process, and you will understand what it means to be accountable to the community that your organization serves.
So how can a lawyer go about finding a position on a non-profit? Though you can take the extreme step that I did and co-found your own association (it’s really not that hard), there are plenty of opportunities to serve on existing non-profit boards, as well as plenty of guidance on how to do so without exposing yourself to liability. I’ll discuss these resources after the jump.
1. What kind of board do you want to join? Before committing the time to serving on a board, think about what you wish to accomplish through service. If you’re trying to increase your stature in the community or build contacts with potential clients, identify non-profits which are complementary to your practice area – so for example, a lawyer focusing on special needs trusts might want to serve a non-profit that helps the disabled. Alternatively, if you have a passion outside of the law, such as cooking or music, you may want to serve on the board of the community orchestra or local soup kitchen. Here’s more information about choosing a board that’s right for you.
2. Finding a non-profit board: Take a look around your community; non-profits dedicated to a variety of disciplines abound. Perhaps you already know someone on a board whom you can contact directly or you can write to the non-profit and inquire about volunteering to serve. You can also try sites like Board Net USA, a website which matches volunteers with non-profit board positions or Idealist.org, which has a searchable database of volunteer positions.
3. Who else is on the board? Once you’ve identified a board, take a look at the composition of members. If you’re a tax lawyer with a primary motive of business development and the board is already populated with three other tax lawyers with similar practices, you may want to consider another non-profit opportunity. Likewise, if the board is primarily comprised of college students and your practice is focused on representing small businesses, that board may not be the best choice.
4. What should I do to apply? Boards desire different skills but generally, conscientious hard workers are always welcome. In addition, any potential fund raising contacts that you might have could come in handy. You can tout your legal skills and practice experience in applying, but bear in mind that ultimately, as a Board member, you cannot offer legal advice which would create a conflict of interest.
5. What do I need to know to serve on a Board? Perhaps most importantly, you need to know how to stay out of trouble. Though serving on a Board has benefits, it can also trigger potential liability. You’ll want to evaluate whether state law confers immunity on non-profit board members, whether the non-profit holds an insurance policy for Board members and whether your service will affect your malpractice insurance.
Of course, you also need to know about the organization and how it is run. Boardsource.org offers a fairly comprehensive list of questions to ask before you serve on a non-profit board as well as many other resources that can assist you if you do accept a Board position.
Have you served on a non-profit board? What’s your experience been? Please share in the comments below.