Forget all those Hollywood images of silver-haired white men tugging the lapels of their double-breasted suits while puffing cigars in a mahogany boardroom. Being on a board puts you in a position of power and responsibility, but its actually hard work. In the for-profit corporate world, very few people are invited to sit on the board, and even fewer women. A 2017 study of more than 980 Fortune 1000 companies found that women accounted for only 19.8 percent of board seats, albeit this was up from 18.8 percent the previous year. Another 2017 study found that among companies tracked by global market watcher MSCI, 28.5 percent of information technology companies lacked a single woman on their board.
The European Union has proposed rules requiring companies to have at least 40 percent women on their boards. The State of California is pushing to require female representation on all corporate boards by 2021. Still, these seats will be hard to come by for most women.
Serving on a for-profit board reinforces the skills you’ve already acquired, but in a new way. You will already know that business. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be invited to be on the board. Now you need to prove you can negotiate your vision for that business with your fellow board members as well as the regular operating staff.
Sitting on a corporate board offers:
- A broad overview of a company and its constituents
- A chance to enact real, measurable change within a company
- Access to talented peers
- An opportunity to show off your skills
- General prestige.
A better setting for many professionals wanting to join a board, especially for the first time, is in the nonprofit sector. Most of that stuffiness that can exist on the boards of traditional for-profit companies is replaced by hands-on work, community involvement, and a real sense of accomplishment. Rather than helping a corporation make money, you’d be bettering the world around you. There are also plenty of self-serving reasons to join a nonprofit board, such as:
- Learn new skills and best practices
- Display your specific skills and strengths
- Gain new perspectives outside the for-profit world
- Make connections with like-minded people in different fields
- Find a real sense of accomplishment.
Nínive Calegari, CEO of Enterprise for Youth, is a San Francisco-based education advocate with a lot of experience on nonprofit boards. She says the personal and professional growth possibilities are limitless.
“Being in the role of caring and nurturing an impactful organization is enormously rewarding. Watching the change of an individual who is experiencing good programming, seeing the larger power of the mission in the community, supporting hard working staff, or even witnessing the maturation of the board itself, are all fantastic and meaningful professional and personal experiences,” Calegari said.
She first got her start on boards when elected to the leadership of the charter high school where she taught. Things steamrolled from there:
Calegari founded 826 Valencia‘s board in San Francisco; then the boards of the education nonprofit’s chapters in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, DC, and Los Angeles, where she was particularly active. She then created the 826 National board, where she’s an emerita member for life. The then-mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom appointed her as an arts commissioner and she sat on that board. She founded The Teacher Salary Project board. She also served more than five years on the 18 Reasons board. Her experience led her to co-producing the film American Teacher and consulting for many nonprofit boards around the United States.
The right board for you
There’s no reason to expect joining your local community board will lead to producing a feature-length movie—but clearly there’s no reason it won’t. That said, listen to your heart when choosing what organization to join. As Calegari says:
“You should only join a board whose mission and leader you truly love. Then, when you do join, you need to bring your whole heart to it, be evangelical in sharing the mission with your community, and enjoy finding ways to bring your particular talents and connections to the table. Dive in!”
A good board, she says, has people working hard on things that matter to them. She calls the hard work joyful. “They are raising money, building partnerships, and increasing visibility for the organizational mission.”
Some drawbacks from serving on a board include:
- It’s a draw on your time
- Frequent fundraising (something boards are historically bad at)
- Dealing with competing agendas and politics (although board turmoil can lead to learning new leadership skills).
What may not be evident is how important women from the for-profit world can be to a nonprofit. “There’s a really profound thing that can happen when a woman from the for-profit world comes and joins women in the nonprofit world with the purpose of supporting and elevating those women,” says Calegari, before adding “They can play a real role and it can be very valuable for those women—professionally financially and all the rest.”
And always be sure not to underestimate women in the nonprofit world. They are navigating landscapes every bit as complex and challenging as women in the for-profit world.
A great place to start networking and skill sharing is by joining a professional women’s network like IAW.