Tech Skills and Other Considerations
for Joining a Nonprofit Board
IndustryView | 2014
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are nearly 1.5 million nonprofits currently registered in the U.S. Many of these organizations have a board of directors, for which they actively seek talented professionals. While board service offers a myriad of opportunities for tremendous personal and professional benefit, it also bears the weight of serious social and financial responsibility.
To find out what potential board members should take into account when evaluating an offer from a nonprofit, Software Advice surveyed 1,545 respondents who have either served on a board of directors or been tasked with recruiting new board members. We then interviewed nonprofit industry experts to gain their insight on the results.
The first thing we wanted to learn was what nonprofit board members consider to be the biggest benefit of board service. The most popular answer was personal fulfillment, with 50 percent of our respondents choosing this as primary reason for joining a board of directors.
Professional development was the next runner-up, at 20 percent, while 16 percent of respondents cited the refinement of leadership skills and 3 percent cited networking and meeting new people.
This data suggests that, while board service fosters professional development and leadership skills, the huge responsibility and level of commitment required of board members is what pushes personal fulfillment to the top of the list.
“You want to be extremely passionate about the cause [of the nonprofit you choose] and about the work of that organization,” explains Shari Tishman, director of engagement at VolunteerMatch.
While the general responsibility of a board of directors is to maintain the health and effectiveness of its organization, this responsibility varies significantly from board to board. As such, it’s not surprising that level of involvement was by far the most-commonly cited consideration for joining a nonprofit board (50 percent).
The diversity of the current board (i.e., members’ skill and experience level) tied with personal giving requirements for second place, each cited by 14 percent of respondents. Another 7 percent cited the organization's financial standing as the biggest consideration.
Cynthia Remec is executive director of BoardAssist, a nonprofit that matches potential board members with other nonprofit organizations, and then tracks the success of every match made.
“People [considering joining a board] are willing to be generous with their time and money and want to be involved; that’s why you’re seeing expected involvement as the bigger factor to consider,” she explains. “The problem [with unsuccessful matches] is unclear communication about personal giving and fundraising expectations.”
To gain a more accurate understanding of the level of involvement a seat on the board entails, Remec advises asking questions such as, “What have other board members done on your board?” and, “Can you give me three examples of things the board has accomplished in the past year in addition to raising money?”
Remec also advices discussing two specific numbers: “the give” and “the get.” The give is how much you’re expected to donate personally to the organization each year, while the get is the total amount of donations you’re expected to generate through fundraising efforts. To this end, she recommends asking the board how much, on average, board members usually generate. (BoardAssist has an informative brochure that covers this in greater detail.)
Next, we wanted to know what skills and experience have the greatest impact on a board member’s success. Fundraising experience was the most cited (24 percent), while relevant volunteer work, professional experience and project management followed, each cited by 19 percent. Experience with human resources came in third place, at 16 percent.
According to Tishman, it’s not surprising that fundraising was cited by the majority of respondents—after all, a board’s primary responsibility is to ensure the financial sustainability of an organization. However, she also emphasizes that the wide range of relevant skills in the chart above reflects the fact that a board’s collective skill set is more important than the specialized knowledge of any individual member.
Remec holds a similar opinion. “Fundraising is important for nonprofits, but that is not the most important skill, nor is it the primary responsibility of a board member,” she explains. “Your primary responsibility is to be shepherds of the organization.”
All of our experts agree that a successful board should have at least one person proficient in each of the following areas:
However, Remec notes that board members often end up performing much different duties than they may have initially anticipated. “It’s silly to focus too much on what you’ll do before you join a board,” she says. “Instead, focus on joining a board with a track record for really engaging its members so you know you’ll be able to engage.”
Jon Biedermann, vice president and founder of DonorPerfect Online, has over 20 years of experience with nonprofits and serves on the board of several organizations, including The Giving Institute and Warrington Youth Baseball. In addition to the skills listed above, Biedermann lists reliability, accountability and communication as crucial attributes for nonprofit board members.
“Some of the most effective people I’ve worked with ask questions, are reliable and they project manage in the sense that they’re able get the experts around them,” he says. “They’re also able to deftly hold people accountable; they can lead them without leading them. It’s a unique skill—to do that without stepping on anyone's toes—and I’m still learning it.”
Technology plays an ever-increasing role in the nonprofit sphere, so we wanted to learn which tech skills nonprofit boards seek in new members. Our survey found basic computer literacy to be the most important, cited by 44 percent of respondents.
According to Biedermann, email is one such skill that falls into this bucket. “Email is absolutely critical, because that’s how you handle everything for a vast majority of nonprofits,” he explains.
In sum, a majority of respondents (55 percent) specified knowledge of a particular type of specialized software as essential: 19 percent chose fundraising software, 15 percent cited customer relationship management or donor management software, 12 percent cited website management and 9 percent picked fund accounting.
This data suggests there is a clear need for more than just basic tech skills on boards. Having a board member who can skillfully navigate relevant technological solutions can save the organization time and money, and facilitates efficient communication.
As Biedermann explains, “Technology is all about saving time on tedious tasks so you can focus on what really matters.”
According to Patrick Callihan, executive director of Tech Impact, a nonprofit that provides hands-on technology support to nonprofit organizations, technology is also a big part of how nonprofits are measuring their impact today.
“Technology is playing a much bigger role in nonprofits through the use of measurements, outcomes, trends, predictive analytics and big data,” he says. “The trend is definitely toward collecting, analyzing and leveraging data for social benefit.”
In fact, many boards are actively searching for tech savvy members, and some even exempt tech experts from financial giving requirements. Despite this, Callihan believes that knowledge and experience are still more the most important considerations when evaluating new members.
“I’m more interested in how someone thinks our organization should be leveraging technology to be more efficient and effective in the delivery of our services,” he explains. “Their actual technology skills are far less important.”
The results of our survey suggest that, while certain specialized skills are more highly sought-after (e.g., financial, legal and technical), qualities such as extensive volunteer experience and good communication skills can also contribute to successful board service.
When weighing an offer, the most important thing is to have an open dialogue with the board about how your expectations of service align with their current needs. When discussing the expected level of involvement, be sure to discuss specifics as they pertain to both time and money to ensure the decision made is the right choice for all parties.
To collect the data in this report, we conducted an online survey of five questions, and gathered 1,545 responses from randomly selected adults within the U.S. who have either served as board members or have recruited board members for a nonprofit organization. We worded the questions carefully to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.
If you have comments or would like to obtain access to any of the charts above, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.