Why Everyone Should Join a Nonprofit Board

join a nonprofit board

I have a big chip on my shoulder. It’s not very attractive.

It’s about folks who have time but do not volunteer to serve on a nonprofit board.

And I’m not just talking about folks who are retired, are philanthropic, and have time. I’m talking about pretty much everyone who doesn’t have babies spitting up on them or elderly parents living with them.

OK, I’m exaggerating but I’m trying to make a point. Everyone is busy and there are always excuses.

I am here to tell you that solid citizens who are committed to making their community, their school, and their world a better place — those willing to raise their hand for board service — are among the single biggest needs in our society.

So I thought I’d take a different approach to the pitch. I’m taking my cue from Joe Landau, my guest on this week’s podcast A Day In The Life of A Board Chair. He is a busy professor at Fordham Law and still made the time to serve on a board and then didn’t hide in the rest room when it was time to vote for a chair.

He loved being on a board. Yes, that’s what I said. He loved it. And it made me think that people misunderstand the value proposition of joining a nonprofit board.

I’m here to say that there are at least 10 great reasons to join a nonprofit board. And they are not about the organization. They are about YOU.

Here you go.


Recently at a cocktail party, I was chatting with a well-educated woman in her 50s who was neither poor nor Mark Zuckerberg.

I love talking about what I do (OK, I actually just love talking – ask my wife) and the topic of board service came up. This woman actually said, “It must be hard for organizations to find the really rich people they need to serve on boards.”

I probed.

Do you think you have to be very wealthy to join a nonprofit board?

She responded quickly, “You do, don’t you? Organizations want their biggest donors and the most influential people (read: could be their next biggest donors) on their boards, right?

This is a myth. Let’s bust it right now.

First of all, nonprofit boards are not like corporate boards.

Second, not all nonprofit boards are alike.

The board of the PAWS Montclair is not looking for the CEO of Citibank to join the board. But UNICEF might be looking for someone in that league. And nonprofits in between are looking for board members that are somewhere in between.

Of course organizations hope to recruit board members with capacity. But I’d take a passionate board member with connections and a broad sphere of influence any day of the week.

For example, I’m trying to get my college friend Joe to join a nonprofit board. One of his dearest friends had a disabled son who loved horses. Joe is neither poor, nor is he Mark Zuckerberg. But I believe if he joins the board of the Naples Equestrian Center (near to where he recently moved) he will be far richer for the experience. And so will the organization.


Shall we do it David Letterman style?

  1. You will learn patience. A group of smart and passionate folks sitting around a conference room table can argue and pontificate. They can say stupid things and make the most brilliant observations. And you will learn patience to wade through it.
  1. You will learn how to ask for money. You did it when you were eight years old carrying that orange UNICEF box but the skill might have lain dormant since. I believe every grownup should know how to ask for money for a worthy cause. I’ll take it one step further. I’d argue that until you ask for money for a worthy cause, you have not reached “grownup” status.
  1. You will have an experience that enriches your resume. OK, this one is a bit selfish but it’s true and it’s OK to be honest about it.
  1. You will meet interesting people who will add to your sphere of influence. People who join boards are a wonderful breed. They have chosen to get off the bench and onto the field. You will be enriched by being in their company.
  1. You will learn to play nicely in the sandbox. This is about diplomacy and making sure that your colleagues get their say (even if you think your comment said it all). The very best board members are teams.
  1. You will learn to appreciate that assets = liabilities. I mean this quite specifically. You will be able to read and understand financial statements and ask a related question or two that actually makes sense.
  1. You will have another excuse to skip the gym. OK, just wanted to be sure you were paying attention.
  1. You will learn how to run an effective meeting of people who don’t work for you. Perhaps you will find yourself as a committee chair. Trust me, you learn a very different set of skills than in a staff meeting. These fellow board members are volunteers, not paid employees, and they may have more business experience than you do.
  1. You will stretch all your intellectual and emotional muscles. Board service at its best allows you to bring your full self to the organization – your emotional connection to the work, your commitment to the overall sector, your life experience, your skills, and the good head you have on your shoulders. There are precious few tables you will sit at that will need all of what you bring the way a nonprofit does.
  1. You will fall more in love with your organization. The closer you are to the work of your nonprofit, the more that work comes to life for you, the more passionate you will become. And you will feel another emotion.

You will feel lucky.


I hope I’ve inspired you to join a nonprofit board. It really is life changing.

Idealist is a great source of current board opportunities. You can certainly filter further (by location, area of focus, etc.)

Now go do it and let us know all about it in the comments!

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Brenda Clevenger

    Love reading your stuff Joan!

    • Brenda. Thanks for taking time to write this note!

  • Debbie Duncan

    Very useful piece. I will be referring to it. Not so sure the gym piece doesn’t count… 🙂

    • Debbie. You are probably right about that gym thing 🙂 Glad you found it useful.

  • Melinda Cardona

    This is great. I have been working with a board and haven’t officially accepted a board position at this particular NP but this has me ready. I need to take the plunge as much as they need me to also. Thank you for the inspiring read.

    • melinda. so sorry for the delay in responding. i’m so happy you found it to be a catalyst to step in! and don’t forget the resources here for board members too!

  • Angela Barnes Allen

    I have a new number one reason for you … it might be the source of a new job. I served as a board member, then chair of a non-profit board, and then my Executive Director took another job. I interviewed, did very well because of my thorough knowledge of the agency, and now I am the new Executive Director!

    • what a great addition to the list! congratulations and do know there are lots of good resources here for new E.D.’s.