Sometimes life is simple. And at times serendipitous. If we took a moment to reflect on our professional journeys, we’d probably characterize our paths as part science and part art. At times, seeking out new roles that were logical extensions of our experiences and skills. And at other times, new roles found us, often manifesting themselves in unexpected ways and taking us by surprise.
This is a natural evolution of your professional experiences. And for some people, this evolution includes what I’ve often called extracurricular activities. These are opportunities that are not formally part of a corporate job description. They could include an ad hoc role at a local university, creation and/or sponsorship of an employee resource group, engagement in a structured mentoring program or even a formal role at a community group, such as an advisory board member of a nonprofit organization.
If your career has yet to include extracurricular opportunities and you’d like to pursue them, where do you begin? That’s easy: Where there’s interest and demand. When do you start? Also easy: Now. Add a question that’s top of mind for many: Will these activities help me land a corporate board position? Answer: Not directly and it depends.
The supply of corporate board positions is limited when compared to the number of leaders departing corporate careers each year. If you narrow your search to focus solely on public companies, or Fortune 1000 boards or opportunities in targeted industries, the potential options are even less. For someone exploring board membership, this may seem to present a challenge. Nonprofit experience could offer a set of developmental and connection opportunities that are meaningful, while also potentially serving as a foundation for future board service – whether in the for-profit world, in public or privately held contexts.
It’s important to go into extracurricular service with your eyes wide open. Be sure you’re engaging for the right reasons – whether mission driven, impact based, service oriented or otherwise. And don’t engage if your primary belief is that the experience will secure you a corporate board seat.
I believe that considering nonprofit involvement is wise for three main reasons:
1. It’s your opportunity to experience the difference between control and influence. As an operator you have significant control. You have oversight of the P&L, or you’re running the legal or accounting department. In the board world that control is flipped.
When you’re on a board, what you offer is experience, expertise and influence. You do not control the day-to-day decision making – that’s up to the management team. Understanding the difference is going to be critical to the success of the organization as well as your success. Accepting this shift in roles and a different balance in the nonprofit world can be helpful.
2. You have a chance to make connections and build relationships with people vastly different from your regular circles. Taking a step away from your corporate ecosystem means being exposed to a set of people you otherwise would’ve never encountered in your industry or professional network. You’re working and seeking influence with a group of people who wouldn’t have come together if not for that shared mission.
As you make progress together in supporting the organization, these new connections and relationships could lead you to other meaningful future opportunities – especially if you’re strategically engaged, clearly collaborative and particularly impactful among your peers. Together, you’ll have plenty of chances to influence and get involved in a broader set of constituencies than you would if you were focused solely on your corporate work.
3. They need the help. You understand why the demand for nonprofit board members outpaces supply. No matter your ultimate goals of board membership, at the outset, give all due consideration to all board and advisory opportunities. There’s plenty of science and data that reinforces the fact that we are happiest when we are helping other people.
Finding a nonprofit that doesn’t just want your financial support, but your leadership and organizational know-how, is an experience every transitioning leader can pursue. You’ll find this route to be a tremendous opportunity to harness, hone and broaden your skills. Just as important, you’ll have a chance to build a diverse range of meaningful relationships while making a difference. After all, isn’t that what impact is all about?