Get your NFP career started

1. Be clear on purpose and contribution

When beginning the search for your first NFP board role, your purpose and what you can contribute to a board, to an organisation and the wider community should be front of mind. Consider the type of organisation you may be interested in or the cause you would like to devote your time and energy to. There is no point being on the board of an organisation that you fundamentally disagree with.

Melissa Macpherson, co-founder and executive director at People for Purpose, a specialist NFP recruitment agency, says part of your role as a director will be to “build culture and strategy, so you need to care and be aligned to the organisation’s purpose.”

That being said, while aligning purpose and values is important, being passionate about the cause or a particular organisation is not entirely necessary. Sometimes, objectivity can be very useful – particularly when leading an organisation through difficult times.

2. Build your base

“I can’t overstate this enough,” says Phil Butler GAICD, non-executive director of Alzheimer’s Australia and AICD NFP Sector Leader, “all directors – but aspiring directors especially – need to network, network, network.”

“People need to know you and you need to know them, and most importantly, trust your fellow directors. Some of the best boards I have been on have been those where I knew at least two directors before I joined,” Butler adds.

Networking not only increases your chances of getting a board role, but also helps you to better grasp the complex and diverse nature of the NFP sector and what opportunities exist around you. Attending networking events, seminars and short courses are a great way to learn new skills, improve existing ones and to meet like-minded, engaged individuals.

3. There’s no practice-run to being a director

As with any directorship, becoming the director of an NFP is a significant commitment. It comes with its own set of responsibilities, risks and personal liabilities. All Australians rely on the services of NFPs in some way; they place great trust in these organisations and in turn expect them to be run and governed well.

While starting out on the board of an NFP is one way many aspiring directors start their boardroom careers, it is still a professional commitment, says Kate Thiele FAICD, non-executive director of Zoos South Australia and former CEO of Guide Dogs SA/NT. “There is no ‘P-Plate’ part of the process. New directors need to be prepared to step into the full role.”

“In the first few board meetings, new directors need to find the right balance between over-contributing and being too passive. Both can be detrimental to the board’s performance,” she says. “Being a director is a practice in the art of listening, robust debate and effective decision-making. New directors should be willing to embrace it all from the very start. Mentors and fellow directors can help guide you."


Looking to start your director career? Download our Want a seat at the boardtable? report for tips and insights on developing your director career from a number of experienced directors and executive recruiters.