At recent event, I was asked: 'what is the best way to get onto a nonprofit board?'
The simple answer is that one typically applies to serve on a Board. Often people will be invited to apply, sometimes people just apply on their own. Either way, follow this simple advice, and you should have no problem getting onto a non-profit Board.
Volunteer for the Organization
Spend time volunteering for the organization by working on the front-lines: meet other volunteers and staff 'at the bottom' of the organization. Engage with the people that the organization serves. You will benefit by understanding how the organization works 'on-the-ground'.
Get involved in 'committee' work. Volunteer on the fundraising, finance, or marketing committee. The committee is probably governed by a Director. So it's a great way to learn about the organization, and make contact with existing Directors and Staff. Most Directors will be responsible for governing a committee, so becoming a Director is also often about becoming a committee chairperson. Start at the committee-level and work your way up to the Board.
Bring the organization money, and it will definitely increase your odds of getting on the Board. It's not guaranteed: a star fundraiser may never actually get beyond the fundraising committee. However, raising funds is typically a major responsibility of Directors, so if you bring proven fundraising experience to the table, it is a major plus. Fundraising is a skill-set that every non-profit Board needs.
Offer to Take Meeting Notes
If you want to participate on a Board, or on a committee right away, simply offer to take meeting notes. This is usually a task for the Secretary, however a dedicated minute taker is usually very well received by most non-profits. You aren't a Director, however you gain access and build trust very quickly. Note-taking is a huge privilege because you are recording the facts of the meeting for future reference. You need to be highly reliable, trustworthy, and discreet (meeting info is confidential). The note-taker often grows into the Secretary role, which is usually a fairly direct route to becoming Chair of the Committee, because you become so immersed in the detailed activities of the group. Becoming a note-taker will give you access to the decision makers. Make a good impression, do your job well, and demonstrate that you can take on a leadership role with more responsibilities. Ask for previous meeting minutes to template your notes from. Also, this is a great way to scope out the organization before joining the Board.
Pick Your Organization Wisely
Do your research, and be sure to ask the right questions before signing up. (read this article about 10 Things You Must Ask Before Joining a Board). Some organizations are not worth getting involved with (big or small). Some are very well known and prestigious; their Board of Directors is a "whose-who" of powerful & famous people. Instead of being star-struck, try to find a group of people that you actually want to work with. They should be mostly 'in your league' but also challenge you to be better. Don't be intimidated by a Board filled with high-powered CEO types. Diversity matters: gender, ethnicity, and age differences are something to be valued. Be confident in your unique perspective, and emphasize your set of complementary skills & experiences that you bring to the group.
Remember: an organization may list a bunch of impressive people on their Board, however, often the most high-profile people aren't actually that engaged. A smart Board will prioritize a Director who is highly engaged and competent, over a more 'high-powered' person who actually isn't that involved.
You can serve on the Board of a smaller less-well known organization, work with great people, and still have an excellent experience. It's actually possible to have a better experience with a smaller organization than getting involved in a big brand organization with lots of big egos. Find a good match for you, your skills, and your passion. Don't just focus on major brands.
Fit Your Skills With Their Needs
Great Boards have defined roles for each Director. Each role has a set of responsibilities, and skills that are required for success. Make it your job to understand what skills-gaps the Board is facing, and position yourself as someone who can fill those gaps. Most Boards need people to do fundraising, marketing, and even note-taking at meetings. These skills are nearly always in high-demand. Other important professional areas of expertise include finance and legal. Find out what skills the Board really needs to execute their mission, and get involved with organizations that need people with your skill-set.
Show Them You Are Passionate
Focus on organizations that address issues that you find meaningful. Let's face it: being on a Board is not all fun and games. It is helpful to care deeply about the organization's mission to get you through the inevitable bumps along the road. If you don't care about the mission, the day-to-day grind of serving on a Board will wear you out, and it won't be as fulfilling. When applying to a Board, explain why this issue-area is important to you. You don't need to go over-the-top, you're not Mother-Theresa here. Just let them know that this is something you care deeply about, and are passionate to see through to the end.
You can use a service like volunteerpath.com that matches volunteers with organizations for free. They also offer training courses to volunteers for a low fee, so that people can quickly learn foundational skills to be effective leaders in non-profit organizations.
If you follow this advice, you should have no trouble finding an organization that you care about, and getting onto the Board of Directors.