It’s Not You, It’s Me: Lessons from my First Board Breakup

A friend of mine who works with athletes is fond of the saying “You either win or you learn.” It’s a good approach for not only competition, but also for life and career. With that perspective, I realized I could learn from a recent experience I had serving on a nonprofit board.

In January 2015, I made one of my professional goals “Join a Board” because that’s what all the successful people I knew seemed to be doing. My supervisor agreed that this was a good goal.  A few months later, I was catching up with a friend over coffee when the opportunity to realize my goal presented itself. My friend mentioned that one of her nonprofit boards had a few vacant seats and invited me to apply. Eager to check the box on my self-created plan, I applied and was accepted to join.

Fast forward a few months to the annual fundraiser. In that moment I was standing on stage with the rest of the board members, clutching a stack of pledge cards as our executive director made an impassioned plea for donations. It hit me that I was highly uncomfortable with walking out into the audience and asking people to give. At first, I chalked it up to my personality – I’m not a natural salesperson. However, I was forced to re-think this when I caught myself “selling” several times over the following weeks. I found myself enthusiastically discussing the merits of my company with strangers on planes, trying to persuade people to come out and try a class at my gym, and successfully getting dozens of butts in seats at events I helped plan for another organization. What I eventually realized was the first red flag: I had not “bought in” to the mission of the organization. I liked its work and I knew other people who were inspired by it, but those things did not make it resonate with me.

The second red flag was my failure to become involved in the organization outside of the bi-monthly board meetings. The entire time I was a board member, I never made it to a single event other than the annual fundraiser. I had a great respect for the work this organization does in the community, but I didn’t feel strongly enough to prioritize it over other activities. Interestingly enough, it was my mom who delivered this insight when I tried to tell her I didn’t have time to talk to her more than once a week.

“Yes you do,” she said, “you’re just making a choice about what you think is most important.” Ouch. Family is extremely important to me, so this really hit home. (By the way, I’ve since cleared more time for mom!) Because I knew I would continue to prioritize my family and other activities over serving on the board, I made the decision to resign.

I expected board membership to be an important part of my professional and personal development, and it was. But it wasn’t for the reasons I was expecting. I thought I would learn more about strategic planning, make many great new connections with other people, and feel fulfilled by donating time and treasure to a nonprofit. Instead, I learned to be honest with myself about what I truly value in my life, and to make sure that I’m spending my time in ways that align with that. In the future, I may find that a board service opportunity fits well within this framework. But for now, I’m staying unattached!

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Celeste Doerwaldt

Celeste is a St. Louis transplant who studied French, taught middle school math, and finally landed at Matter Family Office as its communications coordinator. She is the organizer of the St. Louis House of Genius, where she loves working behind the scenes to build community through entrepreneurship. Find her on Twitter at @CelesteSTL.