If you're an active part of your community -- whether it be as a business leader, school teacher, civil servant, involved parent, or just someone who cares what happens in your hometown -- the odds are pretty good that you'll one day be invited to participate with a local charity as a member of its board of directors. Charities are constantly searching for caring people who have strong community connections to help achieve their charitable missions.

As an individual, the benefits of participating on a charitable board can be diverse and appealing. In addition to helping a worthy cause, you'll have a unique opportunity to work alongside some of the most influential people in your community, giving you the chance to get to know them better and learn the steps they took to find their own personal success. Moreover, working with a charity can help you in your professional life, as existing and potential customers may respect your charitable work for the way that it differentiates you from your competitors.

On top of the outside benefits to working with a charitable board, being a board member is also an education about how organizations work. It's always tough for charities to maintain reliable sources of needed funds, and many charities have responded to these financial pressures by adopting practices formerly used only by for-profit businesses and by choosing experienced executives from the business world to implement these practices. For instance, United Way's current national board includes corporate leaders like FedEx (NYSE:FDX) president David Bronczek and Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY) general counsel Alecia DeCoudreaux. As a result, being on a charitable board of directors closely resembles serving as a top corporate leader and can give you valuable experience that can help you deal with similar situations throughout your career.

If you choose to join a charity's board of directors, here are some things to consider:

Know your role.
Before you attend your first board meeting, talk with the person who recruited you to become a board member. Find out how to get more detailed information about the way the charity and its board work. Some charitable boards provide an orientation to incoming new members. If your charity does this, take full advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about the way board members contribute to the overall mission of the charity. By talking to as many people as possible, you can put together a composite of everyone's experiences and identify ways in which you can be especially valuable to the charity. In addition, ask if you can review the minutes of recent board meetings so that you're familiar with the issues that currently face the charity's board and the manner in which the board and the charity's staff have tried to resolve these issues. You should also become familiar with any committees the board has, as well as the organizational structure of the charity and its key personnel, including the executive director of the charity, the board officers, and any of the charity's other executive-level employees.

Put your money where your mouth is.
One of your roles as a charitable board member will be to ask other people in your community to support the charity by making financial donations. The most common thing that potential donors will ask is whether you are supporting your charity financially. If you can't say that you donate to your charity, then potential donors are unlikely to take your request for donations seriously.

That doesn't mean that you have to make a bigger gift than anyone else in town. But if your charity publishes a list of donors, you need to make sure that you're on it. Despite the fact that the time and energy you devote as a member of your charity's board are extremely valuable, that won't carry much weight when it comes to raising funds. Donors will want you to show them the money you give, so make sure that you can.

Participate in board meetings.
If you're a typical person, you probably endure a number of meetings in your regular profession. Therefore, at the end of a busy day, it's always tempting to go home and spend time with your family or friends rather than taking an hour or two and attending your charity's board meeting. However, by doing this, you neglect the primary responsibility you assumed when you agreed to become part of the board.

In addition, it's important not to simply rubber-stamp the decisions of the charity's staff and board officers. While you shouldn't argue simply for the sake of argument, you should know enough about the decisions the board is making to feel comfortable about the course of action your charity is taking. Simply voicing your opinion is often enough to make people think twice before doing something. While that second thought may not change their decision, it will make sure that people give appropriate consideration to what they do before they do it.

Anyone considering joining a board should make sure the organization has directors' and officers' insurance, because no matter how large or small the organization is, board members are liable for its actions. That includes lawsuits, debts, etc. Even if the organization is incredibly stable, insurance offers a very important form of protection for board members. Go to www.boardsource.org for further information.

Do the dirty work.
Working on any board involves doing some things that no one likes to do. Whether it's calling potential donors to ask for money, baking cakes for a fundraising event, or moving heavy objects back and forth from one event to the next, make sure you're doing your fair share.

Finally, remember to enjoy yourself. Doing good deeds should be fun and rewarding, even though you work hard. If you're helping out on something you truly believe in, you'll probably find that even the most menial of tasks takes on a positive light that will make you appreciate what you're doing more than you would expect.

Related articles:

The Fool's annual charity drive, Foolanthropy, has just started its 10th year of helping Foolish charities in their work toward worthy goals. You can help nominate this year's charities by stopping by the Foolanthropy discussion board today.

Eli Lilly is an Income Investor pick. Fedex is a Stock Advisor selection. Check out our entire suite of newsletters by clicking here.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has found the charitable boards he's worked with to be very interesting, each in its own particular way. He owns none of the stocks mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy .