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How to get on the board of a charity (and why you want to)

Joining the board of your favourite charity is a next-level way of giving back. Here’s what to do

I wasn’t planning to be on a board when I was approached by the Amy Project, a theatre group for young women and non-binary youth. I was busy. I didn’t know how boards worked. And I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the table. But, after attending one of their shows—a powerful performance of autobiographical material that simultaneously opened my mind and broke my heart—I knew I wanted to support their mentorship program. So I said yes and signed up.

I’ve found board membership to be a meaningful way to make a difference. As a single mom and freelance writer, I don’t have a ton of money to give, but I do have a ton of ideas, some media savvy and contacts who are potential donors. In return, there are perks. (My favourites include meeting like-minded people and seeing great theatre on a regular basis.) Ready to join one too? Here are some tips from Torontonians who’ve already taken the leap.

Start with a little introspection

The first step is to explore what matters most to you and then do some research to find a match, says Alexa Gilmour, chair of the board of the Stone Soup Network, a not-for-profit that matches gift donors with neighbours in need. “If you want to find the board that’s a good fit for you, you should ask yourself: ‘What breaks my heart—and what can I do about it?’ Then look for an organization that answers that question.”

Do some online shopping

Go to boardmatch.org to explore some of the options out there, suggests litigation lawyer Kim T. Duong, who sits on the board of WomenACT, the Women Abuse Council of Toronto. “You can go on it as an individual and share your skill set and virtual resume, and boards can also post for vacant positions.” The site includes organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets as well as smaller community-minded ones, in every area from the arts to health to social justice.

Sell yourself

Benjamin Leszcz, a 30-something partner at a creative consultancy firm, just finished a three-year tenure on the Cycle Toronto board and is lobbying to join his next one. “I’m talking to a well-established organization where the median age of board members is early 50s and everyone functions at an executive level—typically in finance and business,” he says. Leszcz recognized how his divergence from those norms could be an asset. “I told them, ‘You don’t have anyone within 15 years of me or anyone with an understanding of communications and branding in a professional capacity. I think you would benefit from my expertise.” Whether it’s your skill set, gender, cultural heritage or socioeconomic background that sets you apart, identify that as a strength—diversity helps a board do more effective work.

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Define your role thoughtfully

Ask yourself what unique skills and talents you have to give as a board member, and don’t just think about the things you do at work. “What you do in your day job may not be what you want to do after 5 p.m.,” Gilmour says. You could flex other muscles that reflect your passions, like being on the social media committee if you have a way with words, or shooting events if your hobby is photography. “I like to live by the words of Frederick Brueckner, ” says Gilmour. “‘Your vocation in the world is where your deepest joy meets the world’s greatest need.’”

Get a clear sense of your commitment

Remember that you’re usually making a two- to three-year commitment to a board, so you don’t want to make promises then not follow through when people are relying on you. “Research the organization you’re interested in to get a sense of where it’s at, because that will be indicative of how much work is involved,” Duong says. “Something new will typically require a lot more work, and something more established will likely require less time commitment and have a more predictable schedule of meetings, but it could also involve taking on more responsibility.”

Carve out the time

Many people’s biggest concern about joining a board is that they just don’t have enough hours in the day. While Leszcz was serving on the board of Cycle Toronto, he was also working hard to get his relatively new company off the ground and raising two young kids. To make more time, he gave up things that didn’t matter as much to him, like watching TV. He also planned his days out more carefully. “I put board volunteer work and meetings in my book,” he says, “and treated them with the same importance as all of my professional activities.” 

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(Photo credits: green chair by somkanokwan, office chair by Dima, orange chair by Zsolt Fulop, wheelchair by nerthuz, blue chair by prescott09 and black wood chair by Africa Studio – all from stock.adobe.com)