Giving Thoughts


Joining a Nonprofit Board: Finding the Right Fit

By Alice Korngold

In a recent post, I addressed the issue of how nonprofit boards can become more effective. This post focuses on the board candidate’s journey to find the right fit. Best practices suggest that you choose a nonprofit board based on the mission and your passion. Yet, most people have a variety of interests for which they can develop a passion. And most people could never imagine the vast variety of nonprofits, the people they serve, and the benefits they achieve. Ultimately, though, the determining factor for candidates in choosing a nonprofit board is where they “can be useful.” Therefore, the journey to find the right board is as important as the final choice.

When I initially met with Steve Nickelsburg, for example, he wanted to join the board of a national or global nonprofit. At the the end of a thoughtful process, Steve chose Northern Virginia Family Services (NVFS) from among a number of strong options. NVFS is a regional organization that helps vulnerable families with literacy, education, social services, and jobs. Steve chose NVFS because its mission was personally meaningful; he felt he could add value, and that his young family would find opportunities to become involved in service. A law firm partner—formerly a U.S. Supreme Court Clerk—Steve has had a significant impact on the board and the organization through strategic governance, sourcing pro bono services, and generating philanthropic resources. Today he chairs the Governance Committee and serves on the Executive Committee.

Finding the right board is a journey

Serving on a nonprofit board is a learning experience and opportunity to develop as a leader. Growth and often delight begin for the candidate from the moment we begin the process of finding the right board. Business people are amazed by the variety of missions and programs, and become increasingly curious about the complexity of nonprofits and how their boards function. They also become more aware of the challenges and responsibilities, having gained a deeper understanding of what will be expected of them by the time they begin to narrow down their options and choices.

Another partner at Clifford Chance, Gareth Old, asked me to research nonprofit boards that addressed conservation in the region where he vacations. Upon considering numerous excellent options, he ultimately joined the board of Services for the Underserved, which offers housing, employment, skills-building, treatment and rehabilitation for people in New York City who are homeless, veterans, and adults with disabilities—a mission he had never thought to be a part of.

My suggestion for what initially seemed to be an offbeat match was based on what I thought would be a personality fit with the culture of the particular board, in addition to the value that Gareth brought. Subsequently, Gareth toured Services for the Underserved with the CEO and interviewed with every single board member, and he became very enthusiastic about working with the organization. Together, Gareth, the CEO, and the board agreed it was a perfect fit. Within a few years, he became vice chair of the board, and soon ascended to chair. Gareth ended up in a place he had not originally contemplated—and has found it to be fulfilling and important work.

Sometimes the right fit is right in your professional wheelhouse. Qahir Madhany, managing director, real estate for investment firm Blackstone, recently joined the board of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). After an extensive and thoughtful process during which he explored and deliberated about nonprofit options, he accepted an invitation to become a trustee of CSH, for which he could add value in numerous ways. The journey led him back to where he started and confirmed his commitment.

The right fit sets the stage for leadership

When board candidates are introduced and elected to boards where the fit is right, they usually rise to board leadership positions. It’s natural that someone who has chosen the board through a thoughtful and purposeful process—and has been chosen by the nonprofit’s board and CEO through a similarly meaningful approach—will take on more responsibility and be prepared to achieve.

There are occasions when a candidate has her eye on a particular mission and part of the world. Laura Bartlett, formerly the EVP and CFO of FCB Worldwide (Foote, Cone, and Belding), was particularly interested in helping women and children in South Africa, after seeing their suffering from HIV/AIDS during her many business trips to the country. Still, we explored a variety of options—regional, national, and global—before Laura chose the nonprofit that very specifically addressed her passion of many years, Mothers2Mothers. This is an outstanding organization that I had researched and written about in A Better World, Inc. Most importantly, Laura and the board made a mutual decision based on the value she could bring. In only a couple of years, Laura rose to serve as vice chair of the board.

Ongoing support and coaching adds value

Ongoing support and coaching—of the sort outlined in Leveraging Good Will—is also important for candidates, especially as they ascend to leadership positions. Each journey is unique and in fact often quite personal. Having an expert to help you navigate as you go forward helps ensure that you and the nonprofit get the most from the experience.

About the author:

Alice Korngold

Alice Korngold
A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot

Alice Korngold is co-editor of Giving Thoughts and the author of A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses (Jossey Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2005). For over 20 years, she has been training and placing business executives on NGO/nonprofit boards and consulting to corporations, foundations, and NGOs/nonprofits on board governance, CSR, and sustainability.

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