How to Prospect While Volunteering at a Nonprofit
Accountants are always welcome members on the boards of nonprofits, thanks to their experience with business and finance. It's a chance for accountants to do some good works, but it's also an opportunity to reach out to fellow board members who may become clients. However, accountants should be careful about how they do it.
Don't jump in with your business cards at your first board meeting. The facial expressions on your fellow members will suggest: "Seeking personal gain? It's just not done, old chap." Somehow you suspect this cozy group of board members, who may have known each other for years, does plenty of business with each other. So there must be a way consistent with the rule of "Service before self," the motto of the U.S. Air Force.
Meeting Day Strategies
Your first of many board meetings approaches. Arrive early. Dress well. Meet other board members around the coffee machine. Learn about their connections to the charity, whether it's a local museum, symphony or private school or college. How long have they served? How did they get involved? Be modest and unassuming. This isn't the time to toot your own horn.
Take a seat and be aware of where other people sit. As with a house of worship, some board members always sit in the same place. You will figure this out. At future meetings try and change your seating position. It's human nature to chat with the person on your right and left. Different seating means you meet different people.
It's likely you are an unknown to everyone except the nominating committee and your patron. (Someone suggested your name!) Sit quietly. Don't volunteer your opinions. You don't know the issues or the political landscape. Like an elementary school class with a strict teacher, sit up straight, look attentive and don't attract attention.
After the meeting, stay behind and chat with fellow board members. Ask well informed but innocent questions about the issues discussed.
Why are you taking this approach? Your skills may be respected, but everyone has his or her own opinion about accountants. Some see bean counters. Others see a restraining force speaking up when someone wants to spend money. Others see a numbers guy who can't possibly appreciate the more intangible benefits of the charity. "What's he doing there anyway?...What does she know?" (Years ago I saw a sign on a corporate executive's desk: "The secret to success in this firm is to keep the people who hate your guts away from the people who haven't made their minds up yet.") Take control of the situation.
You are on the board to serve. You also want to plant seeds that grow into business. You want to work within the rules. Your next strategy is to raise your visibility strictly on your own terms.
Invite every board member out for breakfast, lunch, coffee, or cocktails. These are one-on-one events. You are friendly but to the point. Learn how they got involved in the charity. Are they an enthusiast personally or is their firm a longtime supporter of the charity's mission? What are the major issues in the nonprofit's world?
Draw them out about their own profession. Take a sincere interest and ask intelligent questions. They will return the favor. If not, give a short bio and ask, "Based on my background, where do you think I would best be able to help?"
Why are you taking this approach? Now, everyone may know you are an accountant. You are likeable because you take an interest in others. You learn about their background, always good for future conversation starters. You learn about their passions and positions relative to the charity.
Your Have a Mentor
Someone put your name forward. This person saw the challenges the charity was facing and determined you could help improve the situation. Get together with your nominator last. Explain you have been meeting each board member privately—this will impress your mentor, because almost no one does that. You are taking your role seriously.
Now it's time to bring up business. "I understand the rules. We are here to serve the charity. Something I've wondered: Do you do business with any fellow board members? How did that come about? Did they approach you or vice versa?" The seed has been planted. "I'm interested in raising my visibility. How do I go about it?"
Your mentor knows you are an accountant. You are building your business and seeking new clients. The response could be: "Let me see what I can do." Your mentor knows the other board members and families intimately. Someone might be going through a divorce and need a different accountant completely outside their social circle. Another person might be contemplating a pharmaceutical startup and need someone to handle the tax side. Your mentor can have a discreet word and suggest they talk with you.
As you serve as a trustee, other opportunities will evolve: Serving on committees. Speaking on behalf of the organization. Event sponsorship. Soon everyone will know what you do and brand you as "successful." Why? Because you don't push for business.
About the author:
Bryce Sanders is president of Perceptive Business Solutions Inc.  in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He provides HNW client acquisition training for the financial services industry. His book "Captivating the Wealthy Investor" can be found on Amazon.com.