Are not-for-profit (NFP) boards the place to begin?

Are not-for-profit (NFP) boards the place to begin?
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Many many many people will tell you that gaining a NfP board appointment is the place to begin your NED career. This is often good advice but in many cases, it isn’t – in fact, in some cases, it is the opposite of what you should do.

What are your Board Aspirations?

It starts by being really clear on what your medium and longer-term goals are. What sort of board appointment do you want to have in the next 5 or 10 years? Why do you want a board appointment in the first place? What sort of role is going to help you achieve your board aspirations? These are all questions you must be able to answer. Doing so is going to guide you as to where you begin your board career, what sort of role to pursue and help you to know whether a NfP appointment is the best place to begin. Let me explain

Let me explain

Studies have shown that the first sort of board you are appointed to can be the last sort of board you are appointed to. So that means if you desire a listed board role then beginning your board career on a not-for-profit board is likely to peg you as a NfP Director. You could be suggesting to the market that this is where you think you are most valuable or where you want to contribute your time when in fact this is not the case and you have ‘higher’ ambitions. So you need to think carefully about what your first, or next, appointment looks like.

Further, another study suggests that you can not work your way up to a ‘commercial’ board from a NfP board. Often many think that the skills and experience gained on a NfP board are not transferable into a commercial entities board. Whilst this is often untrue it is a prevailing perspective. That makes it difficult to leverage your board experience and can get you stuck in a holding pattern.

You must choose your first or next board appointment carefully bearing in mind your longer-term aspirations. However, there is one exception that might make taking any board appointment a wise decision.

One exception

In previous articles, I have spoken about the 5 things a Chair is looking for in a successful NED candidate. The first thing they, or a recruiter, look for is that a NED candidate has past board or governance experience. Whilst a NfP board appointment may not match your longer-term aspirations if you have not been a NED before this sort of appointment will allow you to label yourself as a Non-Executive Director. Thereby making you a more competitive candidate by simply being able to start your conversations, interviews, applications and Board Profile with ‘I am a Non-Executive Director…’

Be careful of your motivation

Remember Chairs and Non Executives are passionate about the organisations they serve, the work the organisation does and their contribution to the governance of that organisation. You need to demonstrate similar passions. As such, your motivation for a NfP (or any) board appointment should not be seen as a stepping stone to a ‘better’ board. Indeed, if this is your motivation it will be easily identified and paint you as an opportunistic candidate – an unattractive trait and as such unappointable in the eyes of the Chair or recruiter.

Why consider a NfP appointment initially?

You should consider serving on or beginning your board as a NfP NED if you are genuinely passionate about the work they do and you can demonstrate this passion.  Beyond this there are other reasons you might consider:

  • NfPs often have standing vacancies for quality NED candidates. 
  • You can easily find the contact details of past and present board members – in my experience they are more often up for a conversation with proactive and interested candidates about adding a NEDs to their board.
  • They often advertise their vacancies – more than commercial organisations – as it is more acceptable to do so.
  • NfPs often have difficulty attracting NEDs with suitable skills and time available to contribute.
  • You can learn from more experienced NEDs and put your governance training to use.
  • You can develop relationships with board colleagues who sit on other boards thereby opening up new opportunities.
  • NfP appointments offer the opportunity to speak with other NEDs as a peer – allowing you to have different conversations with different people that can support your professional career or consultancy practice.
  • Perhaps beyond anything else they allow you to contribute and give back to an organisation or cause you are passionate about.

There are terrific opportunities that stem from NfP Directorships. Though a NfP appointment is not right for everyone, the fit needs to be good, you need to have the time available to contribute and you need to be passionate about what they do. For some, it is a worthy first step into a board career but for others, it is worth waiting for a more appropriate opportunity that is going to facilitate your longer-term, board aspirations.

The Good News

If you have determined that a NFP board role fits with your board career plan, the good news is that there is always a large selection of roles available.  These vary from small to large organisations across most industries and locations.


About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world

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