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More Career Tips for You


How to Land Your First Board Position

Career Advice |

If you read some of my early Levo contributions, you’ll know that in the spring after university graduation I was making a concerted effort to build my personal brand, expand my skill set, and grow my network. With my background in non-profits and fundraising, and my penchant for community leadership, joining a non-profit board seemed like the perfect opportunity.

There was just one teeny, tiny problem: Who would want me?

After all, I was young, I had never sat on a board before, and I certainly didn’t have money to donate or connections to offer.

But I knew better. I knew that I had three key things to contribute:

  1. Unique experience. While I had only been out of school for a matter of months, I still had a wealth of experience to draw on. Just because my experience (leading community groups, working at a non-profit, etc.) happened to take place while I was still a student, it didn’t mean it was any less valuable than experience gained in the workplace.
  2. A youthful voice. Most boards are made up of established professionals with decades of experience, which means that a younger perspective can be a valuable addition to the table, especially if the target market of the organization is young.
  3. Soft skills.” These are skills like leadership, communication, and creativity.

Armed with the confidence that I had a voice worth listening to, and valuable skills and experience to contribute, I leaned way in and began reaching out to boards of organizations whose missions I admired, inquiring about vacant positions. (Note: Do not apply to organizations that you do not believe in. Board work can be challenging and time-consuming, and you need to have passion for what you’re doing.) One after the next, they (politely) turned me down and asked me to keep in touch. And then one day, I saw a posting on the Volunteer Ottawa website for a board opening.

After a brief email exchange, I was asked to come in for an interview. I prepared myself for the conversation by learning about the organization inside and out. I devoured annual reports, read every word on the website, and read local news stories on the organization. I prepared thoughtful questions, and took the time to come up with specific contributions that I could make to the organization. I also took care to research the background of the existing board members in order to find a way to differentiate myself from the existing members and determine which of my skills to emphasize in the conversation.

And it paid off! I am proud to say that, since May 2012, I have been a sitting member of the Volunteer Ottawa Board of Directors. It has turned out to be an incredibly beneficial experience… but I’ll save those lessons learned for another post!

If you take away only one thing from my story, let it be this: Applying to your first board requires you to lean in. It requires you to be confident in your skills, and believe that you have a right to sit at the table. So if you’re ready to take the next step, then lean on in—your community is waiting for you!

What do you hope to get out of a board position? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Binta Niambi Brown, Partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, how she landed her amazing board position!

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excel lean in

9 Comments

I stumbled across this post while searching for samples of resumes or essays for applying for a position on a non-profit Board. I have been approached by a number of people in a local arts organization for which I am a performing member. They asked me to serve on the Board and I want to, but wondered what I might have to offer. I'm not wealthy or connected in any way, but I am passionate about the organization. Thanks for reminding me that passion is a marketable commodity.

17d

This is very well written and informative. Great post!

22d

Thank you for this post! I was just considering board service myself but I was having the same feeling of "Who's going to want little old me?" I think I'm going to go for it now, however.

3y

This is a really wonderful post and hits on a chord that I’ve been considering for a while. Thanks for the inspiration to act, Nicole!

3y

Love it! My pleasure :)

3y
Anonymous

Wonderful advice! Now that I've given my career a jump start, I've set my sights on landing a board seat. Now for the application process!

3y

Thanks for the kind words, Morgan -- good luck with your applications!

3y
Deborah Boone

Great post Nicole!

I co-chair a Junior Leadership Board and I would also note:

a)Serving on a junior board is also great way to contribute to an organization you are passionate about and gain a valuable skillset
b)Look for boards that offer leadership development opportunities and access to the C-suite of the organization
c)Non-profit Boards usually want a diverse (i.e. industry, affiliations, university etc.) group of members to help spread the mission to a variety of individuals...so, leveraging your "unique experience" is definitely key

3y

Thanks, Deborah! Great advice!

3y
Nicole Belanger

Nicole is an advocate for young women's leadership and an active member of her local startup community. She also runs the Ottawa chapter of Ladies Learning Code, a women-run organization offering beginner-friendly tech workshops (ladieslearningcode.com). Nicole is also proud to serve on the Board of Directors of Volunteer Ottawa. Nicole is passionate about helping young women succeed and achieve their career goals. You can find her blogging at nicolebelanger.ca, and at @nskbelanger.