Serving on the Board of Directors of an organization that I admire may be one of the most rewarding and valuable decisions I’ve made. Here’s why.
I’ve written this in regard to visitor-serving entities… but the experience may generally apply to serving on the board of any type of nonprofit organization.
I am a millennial – and a cultural organization lover and data nerd. I serve on the Board of Directors at the National Aquarium, an organization welcoming over 1.3 million visitors through its doors each year, and working tirelessly on behalf of its mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. I joined the board in 2013 and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.
Cultural organizations may be in particular need of under-40 leadership within their boardrooms. I’ve written a great deal about the valuable reasons for cultural organizations to invite millennials onto their boards. Many of these organizations are experiencing declining attendance and have been challenged to effectively reach new audiences – new audiences like millennials. Getting more of these folks into boardrooms may help integrate the strategic operations that allow these entities to adapt to a more diverse and connected world.
Executive leaders: Here are five good reasons to add millennials to the board.
However, as I take a look around at my peers, I’ve noticed that not many of my friends have even thought to make a major donation or serve on a nonprofit board. A few months ago, I was hanging out with a fellow millennial who runs a successful company that is a major player in the visitor-serving space. I suggested that he join the board of a cultural organization, and he squinted. “I don’t know…” he said dubiously, “I don’t know enough about that.” We changed the subject.
Some cultural organizations are doing the hard work of challenging themselves to embrace new perspectives. Let’s make sure that there are helpful perspectives to embrace!
I’m talking to you, fellow millennials! You folks who feel a rush of excitement when you walk through the door of a museum, get goosebumps at the symphony, or know the names of more than three types of dinosaurs and secretly hope that you can work that knowledge into casual conversation. I’m talking to you folks who smile like a fool through live science demonstrations, choose musical theater selections at karaoke night, and set up green rooms in your homes. I’m talking to art aficionados, teachers, musicians, animal lovers, history geeks, and people who carry their own straws around to help save the environment.
The primary reason to serve on a board is to meaningfully contribute to serving an organization and its mission. That’s common sense. But to open up the conversation and encourage consideration among my peers, I’d like to examine the decision to serve from another perspective. I’d like to share four, major benefits to me of serving on the board of a visitor-serving organization, in the hopes that it will encourage others to look into board service. I image that some of these will depend upon the board and the organization. For me, these are likely the four biggest benefits I’ve found to joining the Board of Directors of an organization that I care about.
1) You get a valuable seat behind the wheel of a major organization, and you play a key role in strategizing.
From financials to operations to board governance to philanthropy to mission work to marketing to education programs to access opportunities – nothing screams, “Everything is connected in a successful organization” like serving on the board. This lesson runs deep, and it’s echoed in much of the data that I share on this site. I find this perspective particularly valuable because it seems contradictory to the siloed way in which several organizations run from the inside. I don’t know that I would truly understand how everything works together if I only had experience working within an individual department within an organization. When you serve on the board, you have the honor, challenge, and responsibility of understanding how everything needs to work together for an organization to accomplish its goals. It’s invigorating.
Short of being hired to lead a major institution by working my way up the totem pole, I cannot think of another opportunity in which a passionate 33 year old like myself could grapple with strategic challenges facing a major institution – and do so alongside experienced, similarly passionate people. There is not a single committee meeting, phone call, or conversation with our awesome CEO in which I don’t learn something about how to run an important organization. Not to mention, my mind now overflows with a sea of (all puns intended) important facts and figures about conservation, ocean awareness, animal rescue, and how likely a person is to actually be killed by a shark. (It’s one in 3.7 million, by the way.)
2) Becoming a major donor feels good – and has taught me more about fundraising than any course in graduate school on nonprofit management
The National Aquarium has a giving board. This means that we all contribute financially to the aquarium. Not all boards are giving boards, and, in my experience, the topic of giving may be one of the most contentious topics around board service among millennials (and non-millennials). I’ll say this: Giving is really important, but I also think that it’s incredibly rewarding.
Listen, I get that it would be excellent if we could all dictate the decisions of major institutions without putting anything of our own on the line…but many organizations need financial support from the board to keep running. Not only that, who is on the board and how much they give is a big determinate of if someone will make a major gift. And perhaps it should be! If an organization’s own board members don’t care about it enough to support it meaningfully, then why the heck should anyone else?
But here’s the thing: I think there’s incredible pride in saving up and giving meaningfully to something that I care about. Remember how good it felt to save up your first babysitting dollars and buy that Spice Girls CD? (Just me?) Saving up and giving to an organization that you believe in (at an amount that works for you) feels like that…times one thousand. And you’ll still feel good about the impact of your contribution for longer than “Wannabe” was top song. Studies show that giving to charity has serious health benefits.
Consider what you can and are willing to give, and ask current members of the board about expected contributions. But please, don’t let this turn you off to board service. For me, it meaningfully contributes to my pride in serving the organization.
Moreover, I’ve learned more about fundraising as a donor than I ever learned in any fundraising or nonprofit management course while pursuing my graduate degree. It’s only when you (in my case, work hard to) get on the other side of the “ask” that you become glaringly aware of careless but meaningful missteps that countless organizations make. For one, you may begin to notice as the New Year rolls around each year how few organizations ever even say “please” in their asks. (Now you’ll always notice and feel a tad irked. You’re welcome, friends!)
3) Your voice is likely to be heard – and it has impact. You’ll hear the impactful voices of others, too.
I’ve never felt unheard or unimportant in my board experience. Even as the youngest member of the board, I often feel the opposite. While I am a sample size of one person on a sample size of one board (so not a significant sample), I fear that any assumption from a non-board member that a young board member may not be heard is exactly that: an assumption. Learn more about the board culture and test your assumption. You may find your experience to be more like mine.
I’m not the person at the board meeting talking legalese or providing insight on optimal animal care – there are other board members and staff experts who are far, far more qualified to do that than I am! But I try to bring my talents to the table. For me, that’s my knowledge of public perceptions of visitor-serving organizations, trend data, marketing, and engaging audiences. And, if you join a board, you’ll likely bring your own valuable talents, passions, and areas of expertise. You’ll open eyes and your eyes will be opened.
Professionally, I work predominately with Baby Boomers. I am grateful for this, as it reminds me to stay in a learning mindset. This gift keeps my eyes open and it keeps me humble. (I believe it to be a gift, even though it means that most of my joking references to Internet memes get confused stares.) I serve on the board alongside incredible individuals who are not of my generation and it keeps me going. Not only that, I’ve found incredible mentors and I get to observe thought leaders in action. For example, I served alongside Bob Carter, the expert behind the global philanthropy specialists group, Carter. He needed only to inhale as if he might say something and I had my notebook and pen ready to jot down the wisdom.
4) You’ll care more than you thought you could
Like nearly everything in life, I find that you get what you give when it comes to board service.
I’m certainly not the most involved person on the Board by any means, and I’m not the least. I don’t mean to give the impression that I am the first person there as the doors open or heading up every committee – far from it! Like most, I have a busy schedule to juggle, and I live in Chicago rather than Baltimore. But I can say that I’ve noticed that the more attention and effort I put in, the more I get out of it. The more I care and contribute, the more I grow.
The first reason to serve on a Board of Directors on a more conventional list might be, “To contribute to something meaningful.” I wonder if the first reason might be stated differently: To allow something meaningful to contribute to you.
It works both ways. At least, in my experience it does.
To fellow folks under the age of 40 who feel alive when they visit cultural organizations: Please consider learning more about joining a Board of Directors and contributing your support and service. The perspective is needed and it is valuable. And if that’s not your thing, join an Auxillary Board or become a high-level member. Heck, just become a member! These organizations need support in order to survive and thrive.
Curious and want to learn more? Call up your favorite organization and just ask how you can help. If the Board is not the right fit, a forward-facing organization will have other paths to continue engagement with the institution.
If you get amped about informal learning, then cultural organizations need your help. Serve, support, donate, become a member or simply visit – It makes a difference.
Nonprofit organizations – and cultural entities in particular – may be in need of new perspectives to aid in their evolution. For those willing, let’s lend them.