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How Serving on a Board Can Help Your Career

Serving on a board

Ready for career advancement? Leveling up your job title? Serving on a board can help. There are dozens of ways to serve and several different types of boards to consider (advisory board versus executive board versus a working board, for example). Let’s demystify the process:

Why Board Service?

Serving on a board can help with career advancement because, well, it looks good. And why does it look good? It helps highlight your soft skills, which we all know are very important. In fact, 89% of recruiters say that when a hire doesn’t work out, it usually comes down to a lack of soft skills.

According to Monster’s The Future of Work, some of the most in-demand soft skills are dependability, teamwork/collaboration, problem-solving, and flexibility. All of these skills are required to succeed—or can be honed—as a board member. Many employers know that, which is why 82% prefer applicants with volunteer experience.

Know Your Boards & Roles

Before you say yes to serving on a board, it’s essential to understand the type of board it is. Nonprofit boards are perhaps the most common, particularly for early- and mid-career professionals. There are also corporate boards, boards that oversee cooperatives, and government boards and commissions. But even within those broad definitions are different types, including advisory boards, executive boards, working boards, fundraising boards, competency boards, and more. Indeed offers a simple definition of each of the major types of boards here.

Board member roles and responsibilities within those types of boards also vary greatly. A working board, for instance, usually requires “sweat equity,” which means your time and talent are put to use on practical administrative tasks like managing membership, promoting events, or balancing the books. Members of advisory and executive boards typically govern or oversee employees of an organization who perform the day-to-day tasks.

Nonprofit Board Spotlight: Advice from Dress for Success Austin

We asked Dress for Success Austin (DFSA) Executive Director Mia Johns her advice for young professionals interested in serving on a nonprofit board. Her biggest tip: Nonprofit boards typically want board members who share a history with the organization. “Because it is a learning curve, and you do want them to have some investment and some interest in your mission,” she says.

That history could be previous volunteer work or donating to the organization. For a nonprofit like DFSA, that track record is easy to build. “Most people know that we provide professional clothing, but we also have six workforce development programs that each require dedicated volunteers,” she adds.

Nonprofits like DFSA also seek board members who are well-established in their careers and have a history of community involvement. “I like to say that our board members are consultants. We have 13, and they each can bring something to the table,” she explains.

Another aspect of serving on a board for a nonprofit like DFSA is the monetary and time commitment. Board members can have annual membership dues, which can either be paid (or raised) directly by the board member or donated by their employer or another organization.

“Usually, a board position with a high monetary commitment is reserved for C-level executives. It’s always important to ask, though, at whatever stage you’re at in your career so that you’re clear on the level of commitment they expect from you,” says The HT Group CEO Mark Turpin.

Board members are also often asked to commit to multi-year engagements, which allow them to evolve their participation from board member to committee chair to executive team, for instance.

A Word About Diversity

Tips for serving on a board would not be complete these days without addressing diversity initiatives. According to The New Philanthropists, an organization that works to create more racially diverse and inclusive nonprofit boards in Austin, nearly half of Austin’s population is made up of people of color, yet, 84% of nonprofit board members nationwide report as Caucasian. The notoriously male makeup of corporate boards has prompted compulsory gender quota requirements in jurisdictions like California. Currently, about 20% of corporate board directors are women.  

 If you’re a woman or minority, you may be asked to fill this gap. Do so with your eyes open, cautions Johns.  

“When you’re considering board service, definitely ask what gap you, in particular, will help fill in the organization,” she recommends. “What value will you bring?”

Fulfilling a diversity initiative can be important, after all, but there should be value to your participation beyond your DNA. Your board service could be pretty unfulfilling without the expectation that you have talent or another value to contribute. 

Several local organizations like The New Philanthropists, Mission Capital, and Leadership Austin are great resources when you’re ready for serving on a board but need to hone your board service readiness. And don’t forget to tap our executive recruiters with questions about how board service can help your job search.