The Challenges of Serving on a Non-Profit Board

December 13, 2017

By Cynthia Schiffrin

Serving on the board of a non-profit organization about which you feel passionate can be a rewarding experience. It can also sometimes make you question how committed you are to the organization. Taking on the role of President of the Board for Chamber Dance Project (CDP) last January has given me the opportunity to act as fundraiser, mentor, bill collector, cheerleader, strategic planner, mediator and magician who can do the seemingly impossible. The challenge of my role generally arises from the fact that I am qualified to perform only a few of these tasks with any level of expertise. The rest I have to make up as I go along or rely on other board members who have more experience in a certain area.

The need to fill-in whenever a situation calls for it presents me with one of our greatest challenges: we have a board full of smart, accomplished people who work really hard at their day jobs and have less time and energy to give to the organization than it needs. Ideally we would bring on more board members, however it’s important that we choose our board carefully to make sure their interests and skills match the needs of CDP. We have relied on both personal connections and networking events, but it’s not easy finding the right fit. This is further complicated by the fact that CDP doesn’t have enough staff to perform the essential day-to-day work and it sometimes falls on already overloaded board members.

It’s especially important to regularly let board members know how much they are appreciated and valued. They are the backbone of any non-profit, and when there are smart, dedicated board members they can make the difference in whether the organization succeeds or fails. The challenge in trying to recognize board member contributions is that one person’s thank you party is a fun social event for them but it is an imposition on another’s time. Solving this requires paying attention to each member’s personality and tailoring the appreciation to the individual.

CDP is a young company. 2018 will be our fifth year here in DC, and we are still introducing ourselves to a broader audience. This makes fundraising more challenging. We have found that, thankfully, once we bring people in to see a performance they are hooked. However, it costs money to market and we sometimes have to make tough choices about where to spend our precious dollars.

Part of our mission is to share the beauty of dance and music with audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend a show. Identifying social service agencies that have the ability to get their people to and from a performance has proved to be a bigger challenge than we had anticipated. We are working on forming partnerships with some of the agencies, but if our contact person leaves the agency, we have to start all over nurturing the relationship again. We often receive sincere promises from the agency that say, 25 people will attend, only to find that they weren’t able to figure out how to get anyone to the performance.

As I see CDP continue to move forward, I am, along with the rest of the board, always keeping an eye towards the goal of helping CDP grow into a more vibrant, mature organization. I am confident that our board is part of the key to the success of Chamber Dance Project. The board has made extraordinary progress in the two years that I’ve been a member. As terms end, some of our members go on to do other things and some choose to stay on for another term. I am always looking for the next member who will help to fill a need going forward. And I’m still hoping to find an accomplished magician.