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Are You Ready for Your First Nonprofit Board of Directors Position?

Lee Ann Howard, May 2018


Joining a board of directors may seem like the next logical step in your career, but be sure that you are set up for success once you put yourself out there.  Be honest in assessing your experience, skills, and interests to determine whether you are ready or if you need to do some work to improve your chances.  The following questions will help you figure out if you are ready to pursue a board position.


1.   Do you have what it takes in terms of formal education?  If not, could you and would you commit to increasing your knowledge in any of the following: accounting, financial analysis, labor relations, legal implications?
2.   Are you already in a leadership role in your field, or do you need to expand your professional skill set?  To do so, assume responsibility for a specific project that will expand your skills and experience, seek out a promotion to a position with more management responsibilities, find a mentor who can advise you on career opportunities, or consider taking on a role on a committee with a challenging task.  The MetroHealth Foundation has a blend of seasoned as well as newcomers on their Nominating and Board Development committee which provides an opportunity for new members to quickly learn while providing an opportunity for longer term members to gain fresh insight and ideas; oftentimes, a smaller board committee is a good way to get a foot in the door for board work.


3.   Do you have any experience working with a board?  Think about taking on a board position with a nonprofit with which you have a connection. Identify an organization you are passionate about. Mary Fessler of Oswald points out that some nonprofits provide board training and/or an orientation program, and suggests that you can even request a temporary mentor to help you start on the right foot.  Be sure you understand board dynamics and the processes involved in preparing for board meetings – what is brought to the board and why.  Be clear on how to ask questions at the board meeting or of the board, and how board members provide feedback.


4.   What do you need to work on for professional development?  Boards of Directors work on a variety of areas when it comes to organizational oversight, so it is best to have fluency in some different sectors, such as fundraising and HR management, understanding cultural difference and diversity, risk analysis, shareholder rights and responsibilities, and strategic planning.


Making sure that you have all the tools and knowledge you need to be a value-added proposition for a board is the first step in landing the position you seek.


Lee Ann Howard , founder of Howard & O’Brien Executive Search, was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist and has received many awards and honors, including the National Association of Women Business Owners Top Ten Award in Northeast Ohio, the Athena Award, and the Medical Mutual Pillar Award for Community Service.  She can be reached at or 216-514-8980.



Three Key Relationships You Should Build Now to Secure a Seat on the Board of Directors

Lee Ann Howard, April 2018


Once you have built up your career, creating a strong personal brand with memorable, significant, and impactful professional experiences, securing a seat on a board is a logical and exciting step. Board service is the result of both a commitment to excellence in your profession and a history of strong relationships within the community you wish to serve. It makes sense, then, that the three key relationships required to secure a seat on a board are in the areas of community service, professional development, and mentorship. Paying rigorous attention to these important relationships will build evidence of the key traits that are sought in directors – judgment, experience, and credibility.


Find an organization to which you have a connection or for which you have a passion. Put in time volunteering, fundraising, planning events, or organizing activities. Longevity with a nonprofit or community organization indicates both commitment and dedication, and in working for a cause in which you have a longstanding interest, it will be obvious that your service and enthusiasm are genuine. I have chaired the American Heart Association’s Board of Directors campaign and served on the board for The Gathering Place because my family has a history of both heart disease and cancer, and found these involvements to be both personally and professionally rewarding.


In addition to community service, focusing on professional development is critical to board member desirability. Professional associations provide a wide array of learning and networking opportunities. Go to local or national conferences, attend speaker presentations, take classes, seek out certifications in new skills, or obtain training for a particular program or software. Community learning opportunities, such as Howard & O’Brien’s Conversations with the Board® program, Oswald’s Women’s Leadership Forum, and the Ohio Diversity and Leadership Conference, are excellent ways to network, discover trends, and discuss new ideas with people who are subject matter experts.


Finally, as you seek to grow professionally, find a mentor (or more than one). This person will be someone who is several steps ahead of you in your career, field, or industry, and is doing the kind of work you want to do, in the way you want to do it. A formal request can be off-putting, though, so you may want to start by simply asking for advice on a specific action or issue. As a mentee, be receptive to feedback, ask questions, and listen with an open mind to the answers.  You can also be a mentor to someone else. You might find mentees through an alumni network, a nonprofit organization where you volunteer, or through a formal program offered at your workplace.


With a desire to increase diversity in the boardroom, as well as greater scrutiny from institutional shareholders, regulatory groups, and other external constituents, public companies are turning to executive search firms to help them identify and select board members. At Howard & O’Brien, we find that candidates for board seats who have built these three key relationships are the most successful in their searches and on their boards.