To Work For A Nonprofit Board

Nonprofit organizations make up the majority of my client list. Frequently, it is the Executive Board, and not the Executive Director, who contracts for my services. Getting hired by an Executive Board is nearly always a challenge. Typically, a dozen (or perhaps nearly twice that number) people must approve both the proposed project and the proposed service provider (me!).

Boards are always political and they are frequently hotbeds of strife and rivalries. I have first-hand knowledge of Board dynamics because for the better part of the past 20 years, I’ve served on Boards. Board service can be tremendously rewarding or maddeningly frustrating. I’ve experienced some of my most exhilarating victories and most painful defeats while serving. Through Boards, I’ve made good friends with whom I remain in contact and unfortunately, more than a couple of lifelong enemies. I understand Boards very well. In fact, Board development is a service that I offer to clients.

The problem with working on a per-project basis is that organizations are chronically understaffed and over-loaded with work, both essential and ridiculous-but-required. It is very easy to put anything that is not immediately urgent on the back burner forever. The best way to get a project approved is to gain the confidence of a champion, a person with authority and a budget, or someone who can influence the one with the authority and budget and convince that individual to shepherd your project through the decision-making process and protect it from the inevitable naysayers who will oppose the project for reasons either understandable or mystifying.

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures in Los Angeles has compiled a list of the usual suspects who impact group decisions. In addition to these players, there will also be neutral people, who can go either way.


The project champion is its greatest supporter.This individual has oftentimes conceived the project and has a big stake in seeing it realized. The most effective project champion has authority, persuasive power, well-positioned allies and access to funding. The champion takes an active role in pushing the project forward, lobbying for support and outmaneuvering those in opposition. Any initiative that involves a group decision will die in committee without the support of an influential and active champion who will run interference and speak up to defend it.


Decision-makers often have someone who acts as the “expert witness” when important matters are evaluated. This person may have a background that allows him/her to know well the specific needs of a project, which guides the choice of who is hired. Alternatively, the expert may be one who has excellent judgment or a gift for playing devil’s advocate that helps the decision-makers see obstacles or even other options that might otherwise be overlooked. This person has influence, not authority, but their recommendation carries weight.


The influencer probably does not possess the specific project knowledge of the expert, but he/she is a peer who has knowledge, experience, perspective and authority that the decision-makers respect. He/she will be consulted or may volunteer an opinion when an important matter is up for discussion.


This person has significant tenure with the organization, understands its core values and is generally respected by others. He/she knows how things work and how to get things done. The sage can be very helpful to you during the approval process. He/she has valuable information that can be shared, if you portray yourself as someone who cares about the organization and shows him/her some respect. The sage can tell you who’s who on the decision team. The sage usually cannot directly impact the decision process.


This person hates you and aims to derail the project and get you off the premises. He/she may be a rival of the champion. He/she may be competing to scoop the funding for a project of his/her own. The enemy may believe that the project is a waste of organization resources. Sometimes the enemy doesn’t want you to do the project because he/she is angling to get a friend or relative hired.


This person cannot approve the project, but is happy to act as a spoiler. He/she may not be able to prevent the project’s approval, but will do whatever possible to delay the start date, limit the scope and as a result, impact your billable hours, and/or generally catch the project up in red tape. This person is not necessarily evil and may not actually hate you.

Thanks for reading,