When interviewing people in the tech startup world and in speaking with friends, I’ve found that the mission of an organization almost always comes up as a key motivator for taking a job. So much so that it’s often up there with compensation and career development in terms of priorities. If we have the luxury of choice, we want to feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves that we really care about (and even better if we can help make the world a better place while doing it). Helping non-profits is a great way to achieve that goal, while also bettering yourself and society.
At my day job, we make software that helps engineers and designers do their job better, easier, and faster. In addition to selling commercial software to professionals, we also give away free cutting-edge software to students and hobbyists. People use our software to do some pretty amazing things, which motivates and inspires us and helps us attract candidates and retain employees.
Outside of work, I’ve also always enjoyed volunteering and giving back to the communities in my life. In general, I value opportunities to gain different perspectives, grow as a leader, learn from others, network, and make new friends. I’ve found all of those things and more in joining a nonprofit board over the past eight years.
When we think of non-profit boards we often think of a bunch of people maybe late in their career, retired, or who don’t need to work — sitting around a table combing through financial statements, writing big checks, and asking their friends for donations. While that can be the case, most nonprofits are small and have ‘working boards’ that actively support the organization day-to-day while also setting a long-term strategy and thinking about the 10,000-foot view. At the Providence Animal Rescue League (PARL), the board does all sorts of things, from helping run fun and engaging events, to making connections with local businesses, to supporting our Executive Director when they’re looking for guidance on something that’s in our wheelhouse.
I think of my non-profit board service and progression in leadership roles as the best MBA that I could have asked for, while also helping to save a few thousand incredibly cute animals along the way. The organization struggles with a lot of the same things that we do at my day job (what’s our mission and how should it and we evolve? who is our target customer? how can we effectively communicate what we do and stand out?). I’ve often been able to apply things I’ve learned and done to my corporate job — including valuable transferrable skills such as budgeting, recruiting, and people management — not to mention cat herding. It’s a give and take where both organizations benefit, and so do I.
Think about what you’re passionate about, whether it’s something like animal welfare, the environment, helping those less fortunate, or staying connected to an institution that you used to be a part of (eg. alumni association boards) or even small organizations in the town you grew up in or a less affluent part of town. If you’re stuck, there are some great directories of non-profits such as Guidestar that can help you brainstorm.
Non-profit board service can take many forms with different levels of commitment. A great place to start is joining a board committee, which you can often do without (or prior to) joining a full board. For example, at PARL we have Marketing, Animal Welfare, and Finance Committees which have time commitments starting at around an hour per month. Whether you dip your toe in the water or go all-in, joining a non-profit board has so much to give — and hey, you might just make the world a better place while you’re at it.