Jumping in with both feet: Nonprofit Board service for new social workers

New Board members for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (http://www.kcfaa.org/about/board-of-directors/)--pretty much all guaranteed to be cooler than I am, but wouldn't that be fun?

New Board members for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (http://www.kcfaa.org/about/board-of-directors/)--pretty much all guaranteed to be cooler than I am, but wouldn't that be fun?

There are a lot of resources out there for young professionals who are interested in serving on a nonprofit Board of Directors, but they are mostly written from the “make your life more meaningful by applying your skills to the heart-warming work of nonprofits” perspective. For social work students, recent graduates, and young professionals, that doesn’t make much sense. I mean, we spend our 9-5 (OK, 9-7? 9-9?) lives ‘giving back’–why in the world would we volunteer for ANOTHER nonprofit organization in our (limited) free time?

During the last several months, though, I’ve found myself making this suggestion to many of my students and former students: consider joining a nonprofit Board of Directors. And so I’ve done some thinking about why I think this makes sense for social workers, and also how I would suggest that a social worker and/or social work student get started. Some of the links above are still applicable, though, and could be helpful in preparing you for how some of your Board colleagues will approach their Board service, given that, for most nonprofit organizations, the majority of them will not be social workers!

“I’m a social worker. Why Board service?”
The rationale is unique to every Board member, and to every organization/member match, so you’ll have to find your particular reason for serving, but here are some that I have articulated in conversations with future, new, and relatively new social workers:

  • Get to know how Boards of Directors operate–this will help you as you approach your own agency’s Board as part of your organizational change strategies or as a social work executive within the organization. You’ll learn how Board meetings operate, how committees function, and what drives Board members’ decision-making. Obviously, each Board has its own nuances, but you’ll open the secret curtain and learn some insights that can guide your own work.
  • Build relationships with powerful figures in your community, which can also help you to leverage influence for your own causes. Obviously, you need to authentically care about the organization on whose Board you’re serving, not just be there to meet people who can help you with your full-time job, but the deep relationships that you can build on a Board of Directors can spill over into other work as well.
  • Build skills that will complement your social work skills–you can serve on personnel, finance, or fundraising committees (they’re, um, pretty much always looking for volunteers!). You’ll often serve alongside accountants, business people, managers–those who have some of the skills you may be looking to enhance. These skills can help you in your own work and/or professional advancement.
  • Relieve burnout by getting involved in a cause not directly related to your own work. I know that others might have a different idea of relaxation/recreation, but I find serving organizations that are doing valuable work that is not my own work lifts my spirits and recharges me for my daily commitments. When I was nearly drowning in immigration lobbying, for example, I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter, helping with an art therapy project (I know–art therapy, me? But it worked; all I had to do was manage the supplies and help with the promotion piece!). It centered me to be with clients and to be a bit outside my element. You can choose a Board that’s working on something close to your heart but not directly related to your main job.
  • Distinguish yourself from other candidates–here’s where you’re not so different from that business student looking to enhance his/her résumé. The job market is not good for social workers, especially in some fields/areas, and serving on a Board can set you a bit apart, help you make connections, and place you centerstage if that organization looks for permanent hires.

    “OK, so it might be a good idea. How do I get started? And how do I keep this from taking over my life?”

  • Start with organizations you admire and trust–maybe those with which you have served in coalition, or places you have referred a client and been pleased with the result? Every organization has its own conflict of interest policy for Board members, so you’ll need to be upfront about your affiliations with the organization, but you can usually find a way to make it work.
  • Find a good fit between the organization and what you want out of it–if you’re after skill enhancement, you probably want a smaller nonprofit where the Board is more hands-on; if you want to build relationships with powerful people, then a larger organization is probably for you. Ask about the time commitment, the committee structure, financial obligations, and other parameters. You want to know what you should expect!
  • Finally, be prepared to ‘sell’ your social work background to organizations. Because most nonprofits are much more familiar with social workers as employees rather than Board members, you will likely need to explain how your particular skill and knowledge set will be an asset to their organization’s leadership: your understanding of their client base, perhaps; your ability to represent some of the concerns of workers; your facilitation and conflict resolution experience; your data analysis or presentation skills; your understanding of grant guidelines or federal/state regulations…think about what you know, and what you can do, and how those abilities connect to what organizations need to accomplish.

    I’d love to hear from new social workers who serve on Boards of Directors–what benefits did I overlook? What have your experiences been as Board members? And what advice would you like to share? Do you have resources to help other social work Board members?

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