Get Off Your Duff And On A Board (Marc Laferriere, @MarcLaferriere)

In my last column I explored the need for all people, but especially 20 and 30 somethings, to connect with boards, committees, and service clubs. I understand many people have never been on a board of any kind, have never joined a service club or a committee, and I received some wonderful e-mail and Facebook messages from younger members of our community looking to begin that service journey. Some have already called organizations to volunteer.

That sort of response is exciting, and part of the entire reason we created this publication. We hope if you were inspired to serve because of something you read in this publication, you consider writing about it. Get more people involved in the community, and aware of the opportunities that exist.

For those who have yet to serve or are on the brink of making that sort of commitment, I’ve compiled some helpful hints from my own board/committee/service club experience to keep in mind, so that you can get the most of your participation. Keep reading, and if you have some ideas to add to the list, send them to us at

1. Don’t be intimidated.

Boards can be intimidating – especially if you are young and new to this kind of volunteering. There will be things you don’t understand at first. There will be people who have been there for years. There will be people from all walks of life; some experts in their field, some with many letters behind their names, and a lot of accomplishments behind them. You have something to contribute. You have a point of view and a perspective that perhaps hasn’t been heard on the board you have decided to join. You also have a fresh perspective exactly because you are new. Don’t underestimate this. Fresh eyes are needed everywhere.

2. Jump in with both feet.

This is really the best way to start your commitment. You will learn as you go, and it will help your self-esteem. Take on a project, or offer to do something that has been needed to be done for a while, but has yet to be finished. You are new. Expectations won’t be so high yet, and chances are you will motivate other longer serving members to rededicate themselves. Jumping in is contagious and it will help you feel productive early.

3. You might get confused so ask questions, lots of them.

People will be happy you are there. Most boards don’t have an extensive orientation and there will be things to catch up on. Remember, you will have to vote on issues before the board, so make sure you ask questions about anything you don’t feel comfortable voting on. Most boards hold a measure of liability, so make informed choices and ask those who have experience to share it with you.

4. Avoid making alphabet soup.

Warning, a board or committee meeting can sometimes be filled with sentences like this: “We talked with the GBHB and the CCQN about the 147 that we had in 2010 and it is looking like to secure funding we’ll have to fill out two separate CQR forms and touch base with the people at NHQ to get approval ahead of LICO season.” If you had as much trouble following that as I did, then you are not alone. Sometimes long standing boards can begin to sound like a verbalized alphabet soup when they get on a role. It may feel like you are being annoying asking those who speak this way to explain what the acronyms mean, but it is important. Further, when you know what the acronyms stand for, remember not to use them when newer people than you join up.

5. Get a stopwatch.

Respect the time of those who are volunteering. If you find that meetings drag on with side conversations, ask or volunteer to be a time keeper. I’ve done this myself several times on some of the boards I have volunteered on and while it may be an adjustment at first for everyone involved, people do appreciate it. By the third meeting it becomes second nature and by the eighth meeting, it tends to get ignored a bit but stick with it. There is something wonderful about a meeting that ends on time…or even the wonderful and rare Narnia that is Ahead-of-Time-ville.

6. Bring a friend.

Bring a friend with similar interests. Just like working out, you are more likely to do this if you commit to doing it with a friend. As a bonus, you’ll find that you’ll get to spend more time together. I’ve been really lucky to have had many opportunities in my adult life to have great friends from as far back as high school decide to join boards I’ve been on. It’s a great way to double up community service and quality time with old friends when you have limited time, plus it feels good to volunteer.

7. Seek out others.

You’ve joined the board but you find its missing something or someone. Seek out people in the community that might have the right skill set to fill the hole you see. Maybe your board is filled with process people but needs more of those folks with hands-on experience? Or, maybe you have lots of project minded people but no one who digs process. Head hunt and find what you are looking for. What is the worst case scenario? Someone says no but are honoured you thought of them.

8. Bring up your concerns and your ideas.

As a board member you have a responsibility to do this. Bring up ideas, shake things up, and don’t be afraid of conversation either. Just remember, a board is a group who must come to decisions as a group. Don’t be so attached to YOUR idea that you aren’t flexible enough to accept that even your idea can be improved. Likewise, if someone has a great and well-meaning idea, but you have concerns with it, bring them up! Do it in a respectful way, but do it. No point in biting your lip and letting things boil over later. Get out in front of it. Fight about it if you are passionate, but remember to fight fair.

9. Be creative.

Seek out creative solutions to complex problems. Perhaps insist that your new group shake things up with a warm up activity once in a while. Know a guest speaker you might want to have liven things up? Invite them for a brief chat at the beginning of a meeting (with board approval of course). Don’t be afraid to be aspirational – by that I mean have semi-regular brainstorming sessions or visioning sessions. Update your mission, vision, values, and look when needed. Why stagnate?

10. Grab a beverage after.

Remember that part earlier about side-conversations? Save them for the cafe, the bar, or your favourite Hortons, after the meeting. This is where you make friends, learn more about the people you’re volunteering with, have some of your most creative ideas, and unwind. You may not always be able to do something social after, but make an attempt when you can. I’ve met many folks on boards and service clubs that have become valued personal friends because we spent an hour together shooting the breeze after meetings. When you’re not feeling motivated, these opportunities keep you going and participating. If you do this, invariably you will be glad you did.

11. If it isn’t the right fit, keep trying.

You’ve put some time in and it just isn’t working out. That’s ok! It happens. How many of us meet a life partner on our first date ever? How many of us find one job when we are a teenager that we stay at until retirement? Sometimes it just isn’t the right fit and most likely that is no one’s fault. The dynamics just sometimes don’t work out, the schedule doesn’t fit, because of changes in your work or family routine, or maybe the mission of the organization wasn’t what you thought it would be. No matter. Keep trying. If you are committed to your community, you’ll eventually find something that is the right fit. There are lots of opportunities out there – don’t quit when you might just need to try something else.

12. Do a few things well, not many things poorly.

I’ve had to learn this the hard way. Like many, I have a hard time saying no. There was a time when I was on a dozen boards, committees and/or service clubs nationally and locally at once. This, in addition to full time work, teaching opportunities, starting a business, and personal commitments. It was too much and instead of bringing some skills, expertise, and a unique point of view to an organization, I was struggling to keep up, stressing out, and was not able to fulfill my commitments to my own desired standard. It also had an unwanted effect on my personal life – I wasn’t seeing my loved ones, wasn’t sleeping very much, and gaining weight at an unhealthy rate. My doctor rightly mentioned to me that I needed to get a handle on this and make some adjustments for my health. I kept getting requests to join boards and it killed me to say no, but my partner Rebekah and I talked about the issue. I’ll always want to serve and I love doing it – as I suspect you will too if you start – but I’ve decided that two simultaneous board memberships at any given time is the right balance, so I feel like I’m giving back, but not over committing. I made sure to fulfill the terms of my appointments, close out any projects that I needed to, tried to find replacements, gave proper notice, and waited until an annual general meetings occurred before stepping down, to help with continuity.

While I still sit on many committees for work related purposes during work hours, I am currently only volunteering on two boards. Those are the Brantford Arts Block and Rosewood House. It’s been great, and I feel like I am able to give a great deal of time, expertise, and experience to these organizations but still balance my other commitments. When my terms are up and I need to move on, I will. Life is long, and there will be many opportunities to try new things. I’m grateful for all the other board and service club experiences I’ve had though. I’ve met amazing and interesting people, caring people, and smart people, and learned a great deal along the way.

This is all to say, simply, that I hope you try, and I hope your own experience is as enjoyable, educational, and affirming as mine has been.

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