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Finding a community group board that's right for you

Just like people, community groups come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some are small. Some have large and diverse memberships, others have a narrow focus and a small, restricted membership. There are sporting groups and arts groups and lobby groups and disability groups and multicultural groups and women's groups and animal welfare groups – in fact there are 600,000 community groups throughout Australia, which means it shouldn't be too difficult to find one that's just right for you.

Finding a good match is of utmost importance for aspiring board members as it will most likely determine the quality – or otherwise – of your board experience.

Is board service right for you?

Your first point to ponder is whether or not you should be joining a board at all.

Joining a board can be an immensely rewarding experience, but it can also be a hard and thankless task. Before you sign yourself up, you need to be aware of what you're signing up to and you need to make an honest assessment of whether you're willing and/or able to make the required contribution and commitment.

The rewards and frustrations that come with joining a board are further explored in another help sheet in this section, What's in it for me?. There are also help sheets on the roles and responsibilities of board members and you should familiarise yourself with these issues before you decide whether board service is right for you.

What do you want out of your board service?

A key step in determining what sort of group is right for you is to work out what it is that you want out of your board service. If you want a hands-on role, for example, there's no point joining a board of a large organisation with a bevy of paid staff to take care of all the day-to-day tasks. If you want to share or build on industry skills you already have, you should be looking for groups that require those services. Think about your motivations and what you expect in return for your contribution.

  • Do you want an intimate, hands-on role or a more bird's eye, hands-off role?
  • Do you want to expand your existing skills or develop new skills that could help in your career?
  • Do you want to add another facet to existing interests, or develop new areas of interest?
  • Do you want to learn more about a particular issue?
  • Do you want to fix a problem or shake things up?
  • Do you want to make connections and expand your networks?
  • Do you want to meet new people and expand your social life?
  • Do you want to make a difference to the lives of people less fortunate?
  • Do you want to give yourself more to do or keep yourself busy?

Finding a size that fits

Once you have decided that you are indeed ready and prepared to take on a board role, and you know what you want from your service, your next step is to find the right group. There are all sorts of considerations you will need to take into account in your search.

(Note: You should not confine your search to just one group or one area of interest – not all boards will have vacancies at the same time and not all will fit your needs and desires for board service.)

Matching your interests

Obviously you don't just want to join just any old board, but one whose focus, mission and direction you support. Joining a board that matches your interests will help to ensure that you stay engaged, energised and focused.

A good place to start in finding the right group is to look at the groups you are already involved with – it could be your child's kindergarten/playgroup/school/university, your tennis club, the tree planting group that worked on the park near your home, a lobby group that is involved in a cause you support, the education centre where you learned to make mosaics, the group that delivers meals to your elderly parents, and so on. Practically every group you come into contact with will have some sort of board or committee overseeing its activities and most will be happy to receive an offer of an extra set of hands or an extra voice.

You could also consider seeking out groups that match interests you would like to develop further. Maybe you would like to become more involved with animal welfare issues, or disability issues, or sporting issues, to take just three examples. Our Community has a directory of community groups that you can search by name, area of interest or by postcode. It's available online here.

Our Board Matching Service, where you can search for current board vacancies in your interest or geographic area, is another avenue to consider when finding the right group. The Matching Service is online here.

Tapping into the lifecycle

All community groups go through a process of development, and it is important for prospective board members to decide whether or not a particular group is a good "fit" for them. A recently formed group may have all sorts of start-up issues and teething problems to confront. There will be policies to write, directions to decide upon, missions to articulate, staff to hire, incorporation documents to file and any number of other chores to complete. Such a group may be more time consuming than one that has been going for some time and has tried and true processes in place.

Even long-established groups can be very time consuming if they are undertaking a change of focus or restructure.

On the other hand, getting involved in a new or transitional group can pay huge dividends as you watch and contribute to the building of something special. While challenging, these groups can offer a greater sense of achievement than would be obtained by overseeing a group that is humming away happily.

Size matters

When it comes to finding a community group board that's right for you, size can and should matter. Just like you need to find a group that's in the right stage of its lifecycle, you also need to find one that's the right size. This will depend on what you want from your board experience – for example, a hands-on role that may be afforded by a small group with no staff, versus a more bird's eye view of a larger and more structured group. You also need to consider how much responsibility you are willing to take on (do you mind answering phones or doing the banking? Would you be happy to oversee a large, complicated budget?).

Similarly, it may be useful to look at the size of the prospective group's board, i.e. how many members it has. Having a large board makes it easier to share the workload but if there is not much work to go around, you may find yourself with nothing to do. Large boards can also be difficult to organise – scheduling a meeting for six people is much easier than trying to find a time that will suit 15 or 20 board members. Conversely, a small board may demand a lot of your attention but be a lot less unwieldy.

Filling a gap

The most useful board member is one who fills an unmet need in an existing group. Many groups are crying out for people who are good with numbers and could whip their budgets into order, others are looking for people who are good with words and could revamp their newsletter, or who have great networks or industry contacts that might swing a bit of funding the group's way.

Think carefully about exactly what you have to offer – your talents, abilities, qualifications, passions, contacts, and so on – and look for a group that is in need of your skills or expertise.

Location, location, location

You probably do not want to have to travel vast distances every time there is a board meeting or you need to pop in to sign a document or pick up your mail. It is therefore a very good idea to try to find a group that is close to home or to work. Even if the group's head office (if it has one) is nearby, it may have far-flung offices or projects, which could present the need for some travelling.


Checklist

Try this simple checklist to see if you have properly thought through your decision to join a community group board.

Step one: Scanning the horizon

  • Have you carefully considered whether you are ready for board service, taking into account the many rewards as well as the roles and responsibilities you will have to undertake, the time you will have to commit and the difficulties you may encounter?

  • Have you considered and articulated why you want to join a board and what you want out of board service?

  • Have you thought about how much travelling you are willing to undertake and how much time you are willing to commit?

  • Have you thought about, looked for and listed the community groups you or your network of family and friends are already involved with?

  • Have you thought about, looked for and listed community groups that work in areas of interest you would like to become more involved in or learn more about?

  • Have you searched Our Community's Directory of community organisations to get ideas about the groups working in your locality or area of interest?

  • Have you searched the Board Matching Service to see what groups in your locality or area of interest are looking for board members, and what sort of board members they require?

Step two: Finding the right group

  • Have you considered whether prospective groups are in a stage of their life cycle that's right for you at this time?

  • Have you considered whether prospective groups are the right size for you at this time?

  • Have you considered whether prospective groups' boards are the right size for you at this time?

  • Have you considered what skills/expertise/talents/qualifications/passions/contacts prospective boards are looking for and whether you have the ingredients that match?

  • Have you considered where the groups and their projects/programs are located, and how much traveling will be required to fulfill a board role?

  • Have you considered whether or not you will be able to work with existing board members and within the prospective boards' existing culture?

  • Have you considered how much time is required to fulfill board responsibilities properly, and whether this matches how much you are able/willing to offer?

  • Have you sought information about the board's current status and direction and are you comfortable with its present and plans for the future?

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