How to get involved with nonprofit board service


A few years into his marketing career at Milwaukee-based Good Karma Brands, Tom Olson had the urge to get more involved with the local community. He figured serving on the board of an area nonprofit would be the best way to give back, but he wasn’t sure which organization would be the best fit. 

“I wanted to find a nonprofit to work with that had a mission I was passionate about,” said Olson, who is now director of sales and marketing at ESPN Madison. “I’m not somebody that wants to join a million boards just to be on a board. I wanted to find an organization that I felt a connection to, that I felt was doing good in the community.” 

For his first foray into board service, Olson enlisted a friend who had already done a fair share of nonprofit and volunteer work. The two sat down to discuss the causes Olson is passionate about and what he hoped to get out of board service, and introductions were made with some local nonprofit board members and leaders. One of them was Lynda Kohler, president and CEO of SHARP Literacy, which provides an enrichment program aimed at reducing the achievement gap among Milwaukee-area students in grades 4K to 5, with a focus on building students’ reading, writing and research skills.

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Education and literacy have always been important to Olson and his wife, who was a teacher in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District. He was naturally drawn to SHARP’s mission. 

At the time, in 2018, SHARP was in the process of launching its Young Professionals board, which has since grown to 15 members, ages 22 to 34, representing a range of companies across the area. The organization hosted a meet-and-greet event at Mobcraft Brewing for those interested in joining. There, Olson met Kohler and a couple board directors who spoke about SHARP’S programming and their experience giving back to its mission. 

“There wasn’t any pressure,” said Olson. “It was just to come to this educational workshop and learn about SHARP and see if it’s something that could make sense for you.”

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Olson joined the YP board in 2019 and was elected to serve a one-year term as board president in 2020. Taking on a leadership role allowed him to help “shape what the YP board would look like” going forward. That included ongoing efforts to recruit members of diverse backgrounds. 

For those considering their first step into nonprofit board service, the number one criterion from a recruitment standpoint is passion for the mission, said Kohler. The idea behind SHARP’s YP board is to cultivate that passion early on, with the hope that it will eventually translate into long-term, higher-level commitment to service. 

“When we’re recruiting, it’s really important for the person thinking about the young professional board to know that at some point that would lead them to the path of the board of directors,” she said. “It’s great for us because they are getting all this experience, so when they go on to the big board, there’s not such a learning curve for them and they can get engaged right away.” 

Based on his own entry into the world of nonprofit board service, Olson recommends staying curious and connecting with other professionals who have board experience. 

“So many of these nonprofits collaborate with other nonprofits, so just by taking the time to ask questions and find people who are already serving on boards … just trying to make those connections in the community helped me figure out something I was passionate about,” he said. 

It can be especially beneficial to make your aspirations known to those in your network who are most familiar with your work, business acumen, and personality – whether that’s a colleague, vendor, supplier, or board members at your own company, said Patricia Ackerman, senior vice president for investor relations, corporate responsibility and sustainability, and treasurer at Milwaukee-based
A.O. Smith Corp. 

“They can be great referrals because they know you and oftentimes are very comfortable recommending you. It’s amazing when you activate your network and start
asking and socializing … how many inbound inquiries might come from that,” said Ackerman, who is also chair of the board of directors at Milwaukee Women inc, a nonprofit aimed at increasing female representation on corporate boards. 

Volunteer work is another great way to learn more about a nonprofit and build rapport with leaders and execs. Already being involved with an organization opens the door to express your interest directly to those who appoint the board members, she said. 

Ackerman, who’s been with A.O. Smith for almost 30 years, got involved with nonprofit board service early in her career. An exec at the company had reached the term limit on the board of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The company wanted to maintain a presence on that board, so she stepped up. 

“I definitely knew that was something I wanted to do,” she said. “I was still raising my family but saw the opportunity and my company was behind me.” 

The day-to-day demands of work – and for some, raising a family – are enough to fill anyone’s schedule, but Ackerman has a message for young professionals who are thinking about board service: Don’t wait. If it’s something you think you’d want to pursue five to 10 years down the road, but the opportunity presents itself today, consider it now. Do some research and go through the process of determining whether it’s something you can add to your life outside of work, she said. The return is worth it. 

“You get experiences that you won’t have in your day job. They’ll be much broader experiences. You’ll see the organization from its many different facets: marketing, sales, volunteers, mission, governance. It provides great insight into how all of these things are connected and come together,” said Ackerman. 

Where do I start? 

Ackerman has the following tips for those looking to get involved with board service: 

  • Create a list. Do some research on the nonprofit landscape in your area and take note of those that align with your values and passions. 
  • Use your network. Make your aspirations known to colleagues, mentors, clients and leaders. Find out what boards your network serves on, and if one of those organizations sparks your interest, reach out to that person specifically.
  • Volunteer. Signing up for volunteer opportunities can help you learn more about the nonprofit and get your name out there as a viable board candidate. 
  • Don’t wait. If the opportunity presents itself today, consider it. There’s no perfect time to take on another time commitment, but when it comes to board service, the earlier in your career the better.  

This story is part of the 2022 BizTimes Media Giving Guide. See the entire publication here:

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