You are at the upper echelon of your company or firm and have family demands making you crazy busy, and, suddenly, you are asked to join a non-profit board.  Who needs it?  You do, and non-profits need you.


I have had the opportunity to sit on a dozen boards during the last 25 years. Joining a non-profit board does several things for you.  It gives you board room experience so that you understand the organizational dynamics and etiquette of a board of directors.  It gives you a chance to develop collaborative, teamwork skills with a set of usually highly accomplished peers.  It gives you an opportunity to hone small group conversational and presentation skills.

If you do not already have the experience and knowledge of dealing with budgets, strategic plans, revenue generation, management performance evaluations and public relations issues, you will likely be exposed to them sitting on a non-profit board. It gives you access to interesting people who you otherwise ordinarily would not meet, thus expanding your network.  It gives you visibility. It gives you perspectives outside of the silo of your company or industry.  It facilitates your contributing to a mission or cause outside your own narrow circle.

You invariably will enjoy some perks depending on the type of organization such as gifts of art, books or food, free VIP tickets to performances, retreats in posh or interesting locales and so on.

Things to Consider

When you are thinking about joining a board you should do your due diligence to ascertain whether a) the board has competent, efficient leadership, b) there is adequate liability insurance and/or indemnities available to protect board members, c) there is a conflict of interest policy, d) the financial condition of the organization is relatively stable and manageable, and e) there is a financial contribution expectation or solicitation expectation.

Enjoy Board to Avoid Being Bored

It is important to only join boards of organizations whose missions make you feel enthusiastic and energized.  “I tell prospective board members the first thing you have to have is passion for the organization…” says Laura Linger, an executive at William Blair & Co., in a 19 April 2010 Crain’s Chicago Business article authored by reporter Shia Kapos.  Ms. Linger is right; you don’t want to be slogging through meetings and conference calls for an organization about which you aren’t excited.

A Nice Feather in Your Cap

The organization Boardroom Bound, which aims to diversify for-profit corporate boards, encourages its executive members to get meaningful non-profit board experience.  Prestigious leadership programs like the competitive Leadership Greater Chicago Fellows won’t usually even consider a candidate without demonstrated civic participation.  In a lunch I had this week with executives, we discussed the merits of serving on non-profits as preparation to serve on for-profit boards, and the consensus was that the experience is relevant and has value.

Set Limits

It is best to limit yourself to no more than two to three at a time, so that you can give 110% effort and not burn yourself out.  Crain’s reporter Kapos in her great article mentioned above also notes that some senior executives will designate their subordinates to serve on boards in their stead. This is a way for companies to “groom” their up-and-coming fast track executive stars.  Similarly, as a goodwill gesture, when I do not have the time or interest to serve on a board, I usually offer to find a suitable candidate.

Do Gooder Makes Good

When all is said and done, non-profit board experience can only make you a better executive; it is an investment in both the non-profit and yourself.  You do good and help yourself at the same time.


  1. As I have talked to people about board service since this post was published, one constant theme is the importance of “relationships.” Nothing gets done, happens or occurs without relationships. Whether it is business or civic or charitable pursuits, people help and do things for others based on the personal human connection. No person is an island unto herself. Boards, committees, and councils all provide the social glue to get things done that an individual cannot do alone. The social capital that one invests in these leadership circles pays many dividends in personal satisfaction and effectiveness. Also, the more diverse the board, I believe, the more benefits to the organization or company in terms of perspectives, world views, and skill sets. Chicago United’s BoardLink is a great resource for developing diverse leadership and resources for nonprofit boards.


  2. Thank you for this post. I think it is dead on. You clearly state all
    of the reasons nonprofit board membership is invaluable to business leaders, and give good advice about how to approach board membership.
    Due to its recognition of nonprofit board membership as a key career development opportunity, Chicago United has an online referral service, BoardLink, that is specifically designed to connect diverse, early and mid-career business leaders with nonprofit opportunities.


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