7 Rules to Become a More Strategic and Effective Philanthropist

Connecting the head and heart is the secret to more meaningful service.

When was the last time you wrote out your plan for your work week? Probably sometime in the last few days. Now think about the last time you wrote out a plan for your philanthropy. Probably never.

Most C-suite leaders are thoughtful and strategic about every element of their professional careers. Simultaneously, and counterintuitively‚ they are often reactive and even impulsive in their philanthropy. In simple terms, their head and their heart operate differently.

Every C-suite executive should consider philanthropy as an incredibly meaningful part of life. Done properly, giving back can benefit you, your career—and most importantly, the nonprofits you serve. Board membership done right can be a huge benefit to both the nonprofit and executive.

Throughout my career, I have seen some executives successfully bridge their head and heart and do truly impactful and meaningful philanthropic work. Here are seven rules to follow to be a better, more strategic board member, like them:

1. Understand whether you want to be on a board or you think you should be on a board.

Dan Osheyack ran the corporate giving program at Time Warner Inc. for more than a decade. In his words, “‘I want to do good’ is not a good enough reason to be on a board. If you just want to feel good, then volunteer in a soup kitchen.”

Many C-suite executives are used to leadership positions and are often approached to be on a board. Before you commit, decide whether you really want the responsibilities of board membership or just want to be of service.

2. Start with your “why.”

Sally Chan, vice president of community engagement for Warner Bros., urges the executives with whom she works to “choose nonprofits that align with your personal ‘why.’” For Chan, her “why” centers on access to education, and her various boards have been organizations that foster that access. Building your own board service (or your volunteer efforts) around your “why” ensures that you will be more passionate and more committed to whatever cause you choose.

3. Choose a nonprofit that aligns with your professional goals.

Ideally, your “why” and your professional goals track together. You can use your professional expertise to serve a nonprofit that matches your industry. If you work in the entertainment industry, you will find great nonprofits that promote arts education. If you’re a financial professional, you can work with youth in the areas of financial literacy and entrepreneurship education.

4. Consider the life-cycle stage of the nonprofit organization.

We don’t often think of nonprofit organizations as existing somewhere on a life cycle from startup to mature. A three-year-old nonprofit with a staff of five is very different from a national organization with hundreds or thousands of employees and multiple regional offices. Your personal interest may be in helping new organizations blossom and emerge, or you may be more excited by the challenge of re-invigorating a mature organization. Use that interest to help you refine your choice.

5. Approach nonprofits with an eye toward learning first.

When you have found a nonprofit you are interested in, reach out to the executive director and/or board chair to express your interest. A well-run charity is always eager to talk with interested volunteers, especially C-level executives. 

The nonprofit’s reaction to your approach will tell you a lot about their professionalism and their organizational capacity. Are you ignored for several weeks? Does a fundraising professional contact you or is there a board member who is on a governance committee?

6. Ask hard questions of the executive director and board chair.

If you reach the stage of talking with the executive director (or CEO) and board chair, have a very clear and forward conversation. Ask what your responsibilities are. Learn what will be your main connection with the organization. A good answer includes a role in addition to fundraising. If you are simply writing a check, you may wish to remain a donor and not be a board member.

To protect yourself, ensure the organization has directors and officers (D&O) insurance. As a board member, you have fiduciary responsibility for the organization and you don’t want to be surprised by financial challenges.

Ideally, Osheyack says, “The organization should have an orientation or a trial period where board members learn their responsibilities.”

7. Make an effort to connect with your fellow board members.

When you join a board, make a conscious effort to get to know your fellow board members. You should be encouraged to have a relationship with both the organization and other board members.  Professionally, you can benefit greatly from your board relationships. These are individuals who share an interest in the same areas and can be reliable and valuable connections for you beyond your shared board service.

Furthermore, many business deals are born in the conference rooms of nonprofits. But if you benefit financially from a deal you make because of a connection made through a nonprofit, it’s best practice (and good karma) to donate a portion of the proceeds to that organization.

Serving on a nonprofit board can be one of the most rewarding and invigorating things you do. The power to make meaningful change in people’s lives is truly inspiring. It’s only right to approach these opportunities as strategically as you would any other major venture.