Geri Stengel

 
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Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs Can Contribute More Than Money to Causes They Support


By serving on the board of a nonprofit, you play a significant role in a cause you care about, whether it is a theater group or a homeless shelter, woman's issues or immigration. Boards have the ability to go beyond helping just one person; they impact the whole agency and, when they’re really successful, the entire community.

Nonprofit boards make the big, strategic decisions that drive the organization such as:
  • small business owner, entrepreneur, nonprofit board volunteer service, adding a new program or cutting an existing one
  • how money will be raised
  • how resources will be used
  • who will be served by the organization
  • the best way to deliver services  
Beyond the feel-good factor of making a difference, being on a nonprofit board gives entrepreneurs a chance to learn from other leaders - something they can’t don’t have the opportunity to do in their own businesses. I've served on several boards, including Governance Matters and the New York City Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
 
I learned how to influence people who don't report to me and how to make a meaningful contribution when you are following someone – not easy for an entrepreneur who is used to getting her way. In other words, I learned how to collaborate. I now use these skills for my business and clients.
 
In a collaborative project, you work with people who are not your employees. You can’t dictate what they do. They cooperate not because you pay their salary, but because you’ve convinced them that your suggestion has merit. What’s important is listening, understanding each other’s view point, and reaching consensus. I’ve found these skills invaluable when forming alliances with other organizations – a crucial tactic in today’s what’s-in-it-for-me world.
 
But wait, as Ron Popeil - that master entrepreneur - used to say, there's more! As the member of a nonprofit board, you will: 
  • learn more about "big picture" issues, such as the housing, education, and healthcare
  • expand your personal network to include other board members as well as donors, consultants and staff of the organization
  • be exposed to role models and potential mentors and advisors
  • learn leadership skills
  • gain experience in such things as strategic planning and staff development
  • give back by sharing your experience and time to make the world a better place
 About that last item -- giving back -- it's been a national theme for several decades, from President George H.W. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" to President Barack Obama's "United We Serve."
 
Public service, of whatever political persuasion, can be more than mentoring a student or serving a meal to the homeless. It can be providing oversight to the program that support the mentors or provide the meals, and making sure that those programs are around in years to come. In other words, your "gift" can make an even bigger impact if you give it by serving on a nonprofit board.
 
But be sure you understand the responsibilities you'll be taking on. As a board member, you have fiduciary and legal obligations so you must pay attention to the fine print. You also must make a commitment. Showing up at and participating in board meetings is a must, not an option. In addition, you may be asked to make a financial contribution. How much you will be expected to give or get depends on the organization.
 
So how do you find a board that needs members and is working for a cause you care about? boardNetUSA offers an online matching service. United Way Linkages provides board training and placement.
 
You can also find your own opportunities, by checking out organizations that do the kind of work you care about, then contacting them yourself.
 
Let me know about your experience on a nonprofit board. What did you learn? Do you feel you accomplished anything? Would you do it again?