Getting involved with nonprofit organizations isn’t always easy. While we all have passions and charitable missions that we want to support, finding an opening or introduction onto a board doesn’t necessarily happen organically. Here is a quick look at how I personally became involved with the nonprofit organizations I support, and how charitable experiences have shaped my life for the better.
Growing up, my parents were involved with a number of nonprofits and were active at a homeless shelter in the community where we lived. From a young age, I would volunteer with my family and was exposed to the service side of charitable giving. My parents would often invite some of the residents of the shelter to our home to spend time with us, which showed us kids a different perspective of “being involved.” My dad was also a big supporter of the local youth soccer program in our area and was president of the Lions Club. So, from an early age, I learned from my parents that being part of a community meant being involved with local organizations you support.
As I got older, I started a few businesses of my own. While I was focused on growing my businesses, I wasn’t too involved in nonprofit boards mainly because, like most people, I didn’t even know how to put myself forward as a potential board member for nonprofit organizations. Over time, I began to identify opportunities to be more involved, but I also realized that I also had to create my own openings.
I started an organization called Musical Family Tree (MFT) in 2004, which was built to serve the Indiana music community, where there was no place to share music, stories, songs, and more. I wasn’t thinking of this as a nonprofit at first, but as it evolved we saw that it was very mission-driven and the best path forward was to become a 501(c)3. With this first step into the nonprofit world complete, I started thinking about other organizations that appealed to me personally.
Around this time, I attended a fundraiser with a friend for Big Car, a local creative nonprofit that connects underserved communities with access to art. They introduce art experiences into Indianapolis neighborhoods and connect the people to the creative outlets that art can provide. After attending this fundraiser, I spoke with the founder (whom I knew from past ventures) and shared my interest in joining the board. Working with Big Car exposed me to the strategic side of serving on a nonprofit board, as opposed to the purely mission-driven side of MFT. I was able to help Big Car think about their growth, who they’re serving, where they’re operating, and how they’re presenting themselves in the community.
Around this time, I partnered with a group of business owners in Indianapolis to create the Speakeasy, a nonprofit co-working and startup space. It soon became clear that the best structure for this venture was a nonprofit as well. Between the Speakeasy, MFT, and Big Car, I was accumulating a collection of nonprofit board experiences, which opened my eyes to the similarities and differences between boards.
I served as a board chair for both the MFT and Speakeasy boards (both of which I have now rolled off of), and serving in these leadership positions taught me a lot about the difference between running a nonprofit and running a business. It was during my time as a board member for these organizations that I began to see the need for better tools to elevate the board experience. We were using standard email features to run all of these different communication streams, which wasn’t easy or scaleable. This experience eventually informed my work with Boardable.
While I served on both of these boards, we had to navigate some big changes, including losing executive directors and other leaders. Managing change within a nonprofit board is much different than managing change for a business. With a business, you have plenty of autonomy to make a call. A single person can decide if someone needs to go, or what will be done. In a nonprofit, however, there needs to be a clear consensus with the board before these kinds of decisions can be made. It takes time. There are feelings and relationships involved. Additionally, there are multiple angles that need to be assessed. It’s a delicate situation, to say the least.
Currently, I am a member of two boards. The first is United Way of Central Indiana, which I became involved with after my previous company, SmallBox, worked on their website. After seeing the impact United Way was having in our community, I met with the CEO of United Way and told her that if there was ever a seat available on the board for me, I would be open to serving. It took about six months for this to take place. Now, I serve on the executive committee as well, which has shown me what a top-tier, engaged, professional board really looks like. This is not a casual commitment for any of us, which is a great experience, albeit different than more relaxed boards.
The other board I’m involved with is called ProAct Indy. We became connected after I overheard the founder, Derrin Slack, talking about a potential Speakeasy space at a local Starbucks. All it took was a quick introduction and a few networking conversations for us to start working together. Sometimes, taking these first steps towards engagement can be hard, but putting yourself out there is key.
Don’t be afraid to engage with nonprofits on social media, to donate to causes that catch your eye, and to express interest in organizations. For young professionals especially, there are plenty of networking groups out there to help connect people with nonprofits. However, people aren’t going to do the work for you. To truly be involved with nonprofit boards, you have to make it happen yourself, but it’s so much more rewarding when you do.
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