MANY ATTORNEYS CONSIDER serving on a government or philanthropic board as an opportunity to both give back to the community and to make important connections to help grow their law practices.

If you are considering board service as part of your strategic practice growth plan, it’s important to remember the relationship must be beneficial for both board member and organization. The reciprocal relationship should offer two features: a committed attorney with a passion for the organization’s mission, and an organization that provides the attorney an opportunity to gain skills, broaden network connections and does fulfilling work. (Service on a government/civic board is by application, so for our purposes, we are focusing on non-profit/philanthropic board service.)

This symbiotic relationship can be hard to find, however. Some have found board service to be fraught with conflicts involving fellow board members or the staff. The organization’s demands often can prove overwhelming and take up much more time than you may have available to commit.

It’s important, particularly if you are a solo, to be honest with yourself about the ROI of board service—as much as you may want to “give back,” is now the right time? Is board service the best approach for networking and making connections to grow your practice or is does the cost outweigh the benefit? Also, remember, if you choose to serve on a board and the organization subsequently runs into financial problems, you as a board member, particularly if you are an officer, may wind up being held liable. Is this a risk you are willing to take at this time in your career?

If you decide to go forward despite the risks, know your desire to serve must go beyond simply finding a board willing to give you a seat at the table. The organization needs to be worthy of your commitment. And you need to be ready to meet the expectations and go beyond adding a notch on your resume.

For the best outcome, you’ll want to find a cause about which you are passionate. If you are thinking of serving on a board as a means of making connections to grow your practice, you’ll also want to look at that passion through a lens of your business. For example, if you are an immigration attorney, you might want to choose a non-profit board that serves the needs of immigrants so that it puts you in contact with prospective clients. You might also feel passionate about dog rescue but serving on a nonprofit board for an animal rescue organization is not as likely to help you grow your law practice in the area of immigration.

If you are a family law attorney, you might look for opportunities to serve on a community board to deal with issues of homelessness or domestic violence in the community. If you are a residential real estate attorney, you might consider starting with serving on your homeowner’s association board or applying to serve on a local code enforcement board. If those do not appeal to you, that’s okay; there are numerous options out there. Remember: passion is key!

Here are four points of passion to help guide your pursuit of a board position.

  1. Determine Your Passion
    Most people possess an awareness of the issues and causes that fuel their passion. It’s often rooted in previous experiences or an understanding of your community’s most pressing needs. However, it always helps to make an informed decision and add specificity to your drive. Perhaps you want to impact the food insecurity issue, but what’s the best approach: working with a kitchen/cafe that serves meals to the food insecure on a daily basis, a food pantry that provides a weekly supply of staples or a nonprofit working to lift people out of poverty and end the insecurity? All three approaches are necessities on the road to improving the lives of the underserved. What are you most passionate about? The immediacy of daily donations, the sustainability of monthly allocations or the long-term work of social change? Tapping into your specific desire will be critical because you’ll need the passion to meet the expectations of serving on the board.
  2. Find A Viable Vehicle for Your Passion
    Matching with the right organization is a critical key to taking a seat on a nonprofit board. You can use boardsource.org, bridgespan.org or volunteermatch.org to locate nonprofits that reflect your passion, but then comes the hard part: measuring the viability. It not only needs to be a vehicle for your passion, but it needs to possess a solution-driven focus and the financial stability to achieve its mission. The first step to learning about a group: volunteering on the ground floor. You can learn about a nonprofit’s goals and success at galas and fundraisers, but the entry-level volunteer opportunities will shed real light.Exploring the financial viability involves a more investigative approach. Tax-exempt nonprofits that take in at least $50,000 must annually file 990 forms with the federal government. These forms can’t produce a full picture of the group’s spending, but do highlight how its leaders are compensated, how much is spent on professional fundraising and the details of its program spending. Charity Navigator and Guidestar are two organizations that rate nonprofits and can lend more information on the nonprofit’s reputation and overhead spending. It’s important to align with a group that’s fulfilling its mission and succeeding with most of its donations going back into the mission.
  3. Identify the Path for Your Passion
    Once you’ve found the viable vehicle for your passion, it’ll be time to explore how to gain access to its board. There are no universal rules on how nonprofits form their boards, but they typically seek those who can deliver financial support and leadership guidance to the executive director. However, a 2017 BoardSource report said board executives assign a higher priority to desired skills and community connections. The highest-rated value, according to the report: a passion for the mission. Volunteering for the nonprofit will reflect your passion and should catch the eye of its leaders, heightening your chances of earning a seat. It also helps to meet with other board members, ask key questions and explain what you can bring to the effort. From there, learn the process. A nonprofit may have a nominating committee for its board or other formal application processes. A willingness to help, combined with key conversations should quickly open the door opportunities.
  4. Determine How Far Your Passion Can Take You
    Serving on a board can be a huge commitment. It should if it’s going to prove rewarding for you and the nonprofit. Given that, make every effort to determine how much of a commitment the position will require, and if your passion can you help fulfill the requirements. Some of the measures are self-evident: How long do board members serve (one or two years)? How often does the board meet? When does it meet (weekdays or weekends, daytime or evening)? Are there attendance requirements? How long are the meetings? Is committee service a requirement? Can you choose a committee that fits your expertise, or are you assigned a committee? How often are board members expected to attend fundraisers and other organizational events? Does board service require a financial commitment?Other commitments may require a deeper exploration. It’ll be important to determine the intangible expectations of board members. Generally speaking, board members are expected to advise and guide the executive director, but not assume the director’s duties, particularly when it comes to the daily work with staff and volunteers. Formal communication with those workers should be channeled through the executive director. You also need to ask yourself how you will respond to conflicts with other board members and moments of dysfunction. If such issues arise, you’ll need to remain focused on the mission, and call upon what first brought you to the table: a passion for the cause.

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