Why Sit on a Nonprofit Advisory Board

  2014 Computer History Museum NextGen Board offsite (from left to right): Sunil Nagaraj (Vice President at Bessemer Venture Partners), Vishal Arya (Enterprise Relationships Manager at Marqeta),Veronica Pinchin (Product Manager at Google), Angela Tran Kingyens (Investor at Version One Ventures), Jeremiah Stone (General Manager of Industrial Data Intelligence at GE), John Hollar (President & CEO at Computer History Museum), Joel Franusic (Senior Developer Evangelist at Okta), Michelle Zatlyn (CloudFlare co-founder), me.

 

2014 Computer History Museum NextGen Board offsite (from left to right): Sunil Nagaraj (Vice President at Bessemer Venture Partners), Vishal Arya (Enterprise Relationships Manager at Marqeta),Veronica Pinchin (Product Manager at Google), Angela Tran Kingyens (Investor at Version One Ventures), Jeremiah Stone
(General Manager of Industrial Data Intelligence at GE), John Hollar (President & CEO at Computer History Museum), Joel Franusic (Senior Developer Evangelist at Okta), Michelle Zatlyn (CloudFlare co-founder), me.

A friend emailed me recently with the following question:

I noticed you sit on a few boards (saw your recent Facebook post). I'm curious what role you think board membership plays in a technical career. How and why did you start seeking out these types of roles?

Background: I sit on 2 nonprofit advisory boards: 

Note: this is not a post about sitting on for-profit startup advisory boards. That is a topic for another post!

  2014 Computer History Museum Fellows Awards with a few of my fellow CHM board members (from left to right): me, Bobby Johnson (CTO at Interana), Sunil Nagaraj (Vice President at Bessemer Venture Partners), Alec Detwiler (Business Development for Apple Pay)

 

2014 Computer History Museum Fellows Awards with a few of my fellow CHM board members (from left to right): me, Bobby Johnson (CTO at Interana), Sunil Nagaraj (Vice President at Bessemer Venture Partners), Alec Detwiler (Business Development for Apple Pay)

advisory boards 101

First let me first clarify what it means to sit on an advisory board:

Sitting on a nonprofit board means that you are exposed to and gain a high-level understanding of the state of the entire organization. This comes through attending board meetings where you: listen, ask thoughtful questions, occasionally offer advice and volunteer time/experience.

I only sit on the boards of nonprofit organizations I care deeply about and where I personally identify with the mission of the organization. I am also very interested in how large organizations run and enjoy learning and contributing to them.

 

why you should sit on an advisory board

If you should seek out a board seat is largely dependent on your interests and your career goals:

If your goal is to be an executive or in high-level leadership position in any department (engineering, business development, sales, marketing) then sitting on a board is invaluable experience for understanding how large companies and nonprofits are run, what challenges they face and how they overcome those challenges. Spoiler: regardless if it’s a nonprofit (like the Computer History Museum) or a for-profit company, the #1 priority and #1 challenge these organizations have is hiring and convincing talented people to join them (exactly the same challenge as tech companies). I have also seen every organization struggle with marketing and branding, user acquisition and budgeting.

If your goal is to stay very technical on an engineering IC (individual contributor) track, there is very little value (above networking) to serving on a board. The people who sit on these boards are generally not on the "technical front lines" anymore as most are in leadership or executive positions. They are rarely writing code on a daily basis (although some do). You’re likely not going to have a deep technical discussion with your fellow board members, but you could if you really wanted to. When the board meeting entails having a long discussion about branding, for example, that should be something you have some peripheral interest in but likely won't have direct benefit to your technical career.

For people who plan to stay on very technical tracks I instead suggest serving on technical advisory boards: for example, the Django Software Foundation board falls into this category.

 

benefits of board membership

The beauty of serving on a board is hands-on experience and insight into large organizations without having to actually be in charge of an organization that size. I've become familiar with and even have some input in organizations that are much larger and more complex that Tindie. I can then take that experience back to my startup, so if we have an aforementioned branding problem, I can use the lessons learned from discussing branding at the board meeting.

The caliber of people on most boards is very high. For example, It would be difficult for me otherwise to form relationships with C-level executives (CEO, CIO, CTO) at public companies, but through the California Poly board I've gotten to know the CIO of GoDaddy quite well. It also exposes you to how people at very high levels think and how they approach problems: I have found it is very different from ICs or even people in leadership roles at small startups (mostly because they have seen these problems before and it's "not their first rodeo").

 

HOW TO FIND BOARDS ACCEPTING NEW MEMBERs

The tricky thing about board seats is that they are rarely publicly posted or announced. They have to come to you. All the boards I have sat on (or have been asked to sit on) I have not sought out. After 8 years in the Valley I’ve deliberately stayed in touch with and bought coffee for enough people that occasionally my name will come up for different opportunities.

It partially boils down to: if people know you exist, opportunities will eventually come to you. For me this has taken years of proactively staying in touch and offering to help. I don't do this because I hope to one day "cash in" on the relationship, but because I genuinely like people and enjoy helping when I can (I do at least 1 intro/week). A side effect of this is being top of mind when or if interesting opportunities arise, knowing full well that they may never arise!

I would also suggest that if this is something that interests you, tell people. Tell as many people as you can. When you meet with your peers at work, your mentors, your friends: tell them you're interested in sitting on an advisory board and ask if they know of any. This is a trick I learned from a mentor of mine years ago: for every meeting I have, close with a simple favor, for example: "I'm looking to join a nonprofit board, if you know of any please let me know!"

 

interviewing for boards

If you are considered for a position on a board you will go through an interview process. Usually you talk to several board members, although there was one interview where the whole board threw questions at me rapid fire (this seemed disorganized and if you chair a board I wouldn't recommend interviewing people like this). 

Know what your strengths are and how you can uniquely apply them to the board. For example, on the Computer History Museum board I knew that I was one of the few people considered who didn't have an MBA (but I do have a Masters degree in Computer Science)! Given it's the Computer History Museum I emphasized about my passion for computing and technical background as I am in the target demographic of the museum.

It is best to go into the interviews talking about what you can do for the board, not what the board can do for you. Highly organized and well run boards will be able to communicate the value you will get from joining the board. Sitting on a board isn't purely altruistic and there should be some value above just networking, and the board should be able to clearly and concisely communicate that.

 

note

This post was originally written as a reply to a question from a friend (see the beginning of the post).

The forcing function that caused me to blog about this was listening to the Andreessen Horowitz podcasts: The Truth about Serving on Boards and Building a Better Board.

That series of podcasts is about serving on the boards of large public companies (for example: Google, Nordstrom, Intel). They are great podcasts and I highly recommend listening to them, but for most people a board seat at a public company is out of reach.

However, if you are not a venture capitalist then joining a nonprofit board is can be good training to see if you enjoy serving on boards. If your career progresses to the point of being able to join public board, you will at least have some board experience.