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How to join your first board

|Written By Lisa Feldstein
How to join your first board

I previously wrote an article about how to break into the field of health law. One of my tips was joining the board of a non-profit in the health sector. I have had many followup questions about that piece of advice and thought I’d expand on how lawyers can join their first boards.

The beginning of a new year is a perfect time to start researching what board you might like to join because director recruitment often begins in anticipation of annual general meetings, which for many boards takes place in June.

I have been on my first board for three years and highly recommend the experience to other lawyers. But you — and the board — will get the most out of the relationship if you find a board that’s a good fit.

Finding a board that is a good fit for you

Factor 1: Cause

Volunteering on a board is a serious time commitment and can fall to the bottom of your list if you are not engaged. Choose a board that does work you find meaningful. There might be a cause you have a personal connection to or a sector that taps into pre-existing knowledge or experience. There are boards across a variety of areas: animal rights, poverty and social justice, arts and culture, literacy, seniors, children, mental health, sports, and many more.

Factor 2: Convenience

You likely have multiple personal and professional commitments that make time-management a constant juggle. It may be unrealistic to join a board that meets across town on Tuesday afternoons. Inquire about where, when, and how often a board meets. Most meet monthly on a weekday evening. Choose one that meets relatively close to your home or office so attending will not become an issue. Some boards meet predominantly via teleconference, but I think the transition to a board is smoother and the networking benefits greater if you meet your co-directors face-to-face.

Factor 3: Size

Joining a board can be intimidating and, let’s not forget, can introduce liability to you as a director (which is why it is also a good idea to ensure they have directors and officers liability insurance). My recommendation, particularly for junior lawyers, is to start small. Look for a board that is fairly grassroots, but not so small that you will be drawn into daily operations. A board that has fewer than 15 employees and/or a budget under $500,000 is a good place to start (though these numbers are simply rough guidelines to provide a useful framework and need not be strictly followed).

Factor 4: Age of the organization

When I joined my board, the organization had been around for about 25 years. The board was clear on its role and able to focus on high-level matters. Policies were well-established and the board was not bogged down in operations. A newer board is likely to pull directors into management and operational tasks, which could become more of a time commitment than expected and distract you from the corporate governance you are there to provide. However, if you are prepared to roll up your sleeves and help an organization get off the ground, a new board could be a great fit for you.

Factor 5: Conflicts of interest

Just as when you take on a new client, you must ensure you do not have a conflict of interest sitting on your board. You should run the organization through your firm’s conflict check system. Think ahead to potential conflicts as well.

Being a good fit for the board

While you want the board to be a good fit for you, you also have to be a good fit for the board. Some boards are looking to fill particular areas of expertise, such as legal, financial, fundraising, or public relations. While most boards want at least one lawyer, they may not need another one at this time.

Boards typically have two- or three-year terms and are looking for individuals willing to commit for at least the length of one term. It is unfair to join a board and resign before the term is up. Volunteer boards tend to have high turnover and consequently, very poor corporate memory. It is hard to get anything done when the majority of members are brand new and know nothing about past fundraising efforts, the latest strategic plan, or what policies exist. Plan to honour your commitment of at least one full term.

Landing the position

Many boards do not advertise openings and therefore if you find a board that looks like a good fit, you can reach out to the chairperson (often identified on the web site) and inquire if they are recruiting. Some boards post their openings in newsletters, on their web sites, and social media platforms. Others list positions on sites such as boardmatch.org, charityvillage.com, or idealist.org. You can also find out about positions through word of mouth.

You will likely be asked to complete an application form and may be interviewed by the chairperson or a committee. Like any interview, be prepared with questions about the organization. Don’t be shy about asking if you can attend a meeting as an observer before committing. Again, it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure there is a good fit.

So spend some time researching and then take the plunge! Not only have I grown as a lawyer as a result of my involvement on a board, but I have been deeply inspired, humbly educated, and proudly transformed into a better citizen and lifelong advocate of community service through board work.

Lisa Feldstein is a health lawyer with a focus on Family Health Law™. She currently sits on the board of Balance for Blind Adults. She can be reached at lisa@lisafeldstein.ca or on Twitter @lisafeldstein.


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