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Giving Back to Get Ahead

Serving on the board of a nonprofitable organization can be fulfilling on many levels.

Helen Modly, 11/11/2010

You're a busy advisor with many demands on your time. Giving back to your community can not only help you to feel truly successful and fulfilled in your professional life, it can increase your success. If you are not already doing so, consider serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization.

Every community has its share of charitable organizations that represent a variety of causes, and they are always looking for qualified individuals to serve on their boards. Your specialized knowledge and credentials are attractive to nonprofits that want to broaden the depth and experience of their board members.

Why should you serve?

People choose to serve on nonprofit boards of directors for many reasons. They may feel a sense of civic duty, they may want to satisfy a need to "give back" through charitable service, or they may have a personal interest in the organization's cause. You should feel passionate about an organization before you commit the time to work with it because, as a board member, you will need to be an advocate to the public in support of its mission and purpose.

As a member of the business community, you will gain exposure and credibility from being associated with a nonprofit organization. Be cautious, you absolutely should not seek to get on a board to actively promote your business--that will cause much more harm than good to your reputation. Be sure to pick an organization that you have some genuine affinity for otherwise your efforts will be seen as insincere.

Joining a board allows you to work with the other community leaders, some of whom may be CPAs or attorneys. You may serve on the investment committee where you can showcase your talents and knowledge by making a valuable contribution when it comes time to do the investment review. You will have the opportunity to meet supporters of the organization at fundraising functions.

Serving on a board should not be considered a marketing activity. It does, however, provide a venue to meet people you would not otherwise meet, and that exposure is invaluable. It also positions you as a person committed to community involvement and service.

What cause should I choose?

The board of directors of a nonprofit is responsible for the governance of the organization, making sure that it abides by ethical and legal standards in making its vision a reality. Before considering service on a board, you need to do some due diligence, since the key responsibility of the board is to monitor the organization on behalf of the members or the public that it serves.

Questions you need to ask an organization before you agree to serve are:

* What is the mission of the organization (and is it consistent with your passion)?
* Do you have IRS-approved nonprofit status (ask to see the determination letter that it is a 501c(3) organization)?
* Who are the other board members (are they well known members of the community with a broad range of knowledge and experience)?
* Is the nonprofit on a strong financial footing (or is the board supporting it with required donations)?
* What is the time commitment involved (including board meetings, committee meetings, fundraising activities, and so forth)?
* Is there an executive director and staff (or are the board members required to perform day-to-day functions, such as balancing accounts, making sure tax returns are filed on time, etc.?
* Does the organization provide errors and omissions insurance to protect board members? Think twice before serving on any board without E&O coverage.

Before making a commitment, you can ask to see the articles of incorporation, the bylaws, the mission statement with the vision and goals, and financial information including budgets and current financial statements.

Some small or newly formed organizations may not have a well-articulated vision and may be lacking current financial information. That doesn't preclude you from working with them, but you need to be aware of the challenges they may be facing. A limited budget and lack of a clear fund-raising goal can be indications that the nonprofit may not be viable over the long term.

 What are my responsibilities?

The amount of involvement varies based on the size and mission of the organization. However, most boards have certain expectations that you need to meet. Some of the more common are:

* Attendance at most of the board meetings
* Participation on at least one committee
* A commitment to make a charitable contribution to the organization
* Attendance at program and fundraising activities

In addition, you may be asked to recommend other board members, secure new donors for the organization, and participate in other ways.

The job of a board member is to provide oversight and strategic planning. You should not be required to perform duties that involve tasks related to the daily running of the business.

How do I get involved?

If no organization is knocking on your door, find one that represents a cause that particularly interests you--a breast cancer organization if your mother had breast cancer; a food bank if you are concerned about families struggling during the economic downturn; a school that your children attend, and so forth. The more passionate you are about the organization, the more meaningful your participation will be.

Once you have identified one or several organizations, check out their websites to see if you know any of the existing board members. If not, attend a fund raising function that they sponsor. Once you have a name of a person involved in the non-profit, send him a letter (with a copy to the executive director if they have one) indicating your interest and desire to serve, and describe the special talents you bring to the organization. You can also volunteer to help with a fund-raising effort sponsored by the non-profit, and take that opportunity to meet as many people as you can.

It may take several tries before you hear anything, as most boards have an annual cycle when the nominating committee meets. Since boards are structured with revolving terms for their members, several people rotate off each year. That's the time that your offer will be considered. It's possible that, as a first step, you will be invited to work on a committee.

Your involvement with community nonprofit organizations can help to build a favorable impression of you and your talents in your business community. Coupled with getting to know other business leaders and people of influence, these "outside" activities can become more valuable to your practice than traditional marketing.

This article was cowritten by Sandra Atkins, CPA/PFS, a wealth advisor with Focus Wealth Management.

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