August 16, 2017

How to become an engaged board member

The relationship between a board member and nonprofit is often hard to navigate. Here are a few tips on how to make it work from someone who has worn both hats.

3 min read

“I joined the board of this social enterprise because I wished to do something meaningful. I believe in their mission and I want to contribute in every possible way I can.”

“We searched long for the right board member are delighted to have Raj on our board. He has just the right networks for what we need and seems truly excited about our work.”

Seems like a perfect start to a relationship: two consenting parties, both with the right intent and something of value to offer. You’d imagine they’d create magic together. Yet, many ‘marriages’ between imminent board members and nonprofits begin well but end badly. Others simply languish, with all parties feeling unsatisfied.

Many of us who enthusiastically volunteer feel that the nature and cadence of our involvement will be driven by the nonprofits. Whether as board members or advisors, we put the responsibility of involving us, on them. In my experience, this relationship is a two-way process. You must drive it as much as the organisation does.

Having served on both boards and in an advisory capacity to many organisations including Educate Girls, Junoon, The World Monuments Fund and Antarang, here is what I’ve learnt about how to make the relationship work.

Have an explicit conversation about expectations and needs upfront.

Most board members get involved because they are enthusiastic about the organisation and keen to contribute. But it’s critical to have clarity on the nature of your contribution.

If the nonprofit has not yet defined its needs, take the initiative to drive that discussion. Ask how much time, how often and what kind of support it expects from you. And be candid about whether you’re comfortable with the ask. I know of a few situations in which it was assumed that certain board members would fundraise. But they were reluctant to use their contacts for this purpose.

Your circumstances can change over time. In my conversations, I discuss how far into the future I can foresee my commitment lasting. When I agreed to serve on the core team of SMART (Strategic Management in the Art of Theatre) for two years, I had requested that we revisit my future involvement at the end of that time. This allowed for a natural point at which we could comfortably discuss roles afresh. And when my circumstances did change, giving me less time to contribute, our parting was amicable. The team had sufficient time to find a replacement.

Remember, it’s not just the lead you’re marrying; it’s the ‘family’

Typically, people come on board because of their relationship with the nonprofit leader. They expect their involvement to be through this individual.

board member

But you can be more impactful by supporting and working with the broader team. Find ways to get to know them and make yourself accessible. Offer to mentor them or act as a thought partner. It’ll both deepen your understanding of the organisation and provide more avenues to have an impact. At Educate Girls (EG), a board member who had a finance background worked closely with the CFO when EG was negotiating the terms of its development impact bond (DIB).

Act as an extra pair of eyes and ears

People bring tremendous passion to their work at nonprofits. Their day-to-day keeps them deep in the trenches. You can bring a unique perspective to the team because you’re both vested in its success, and yet objective about its work given the distance you maintain as an advisor.

When I was at Junoon, an advisor rightly pushed us to strengthen our online presence to stay relevant, even though we were focussed on live arts experiences five years ago.

Help with housekeeping

There are important governance and legal issues that nonprofits face, especially given the need for transparency and tracking for CSR funds and FCRA. Unfamiliar with this territory or too stretched to focus on it sufficiently, organisations accept the support they can access or afford. In many cases, they rely on a part-time accountant.

You can play a key role in ensuring that the organisation meets its basic compliance needs. You might be able leverage your networks to source pro-bono support from a law firm to look at contracts, or an accounting firm to review processes and ensure that all accounts are in order. This can both build the staff’s capacity and also serve as a check and balance system.


It is from the many casual conversations at workshops or fundraisers that new possibilities for partnership, pilots and expansion emerge. Ongoing outreach is therefore vital for organisations to grow and refine their models.

Your role entails talking about your nonprofit’s work to people. The best board members I know are constantly thinking of and serving their nonprofits in different ways. When I met a friend–also an advisor to Antarang, which imparts livelihoods skills to youth–at a café recently, his first question was, “I wonder if this place would hire some of our graduates. I should ask”.

The more you immerse yourself, the more meaningful the experience will be for you. Of course, it’s important to remember that you are there to support the leadership, giving them enough space to make the right decisions for the organisation.

We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read.
Swati Apte-Image
Swati Apte

Swati Apte is co-founder of The Arts Quotient, a leadership development firm that harnesses skills and practices from the live arts for personal and professional growth. She started her career at McKinsey & Co in New York and has since worked actively in the social sector with Ashoka, Swadhaar and Junoon. She has been closely involved with organisations such as Educate Girls, India Schoolhouse Fund, Antarang, SVP and the World Monuments Fund, supporting them in areas of strategy, capacity building, governance and fundraising. She is currently faculty and part of the core team for SMART, a capacity building programme for theatre groups across the country. Swati has a Masters in Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford and an MBA from Harvard Business School.