Serve and Learn

Board membership is a meaningful way to grow

by Henry J. Lindborg

Today, successful professionals need a range of skills. At one time or another, many professionals experience a call to greater service and yearn to demonstrate a wider scope of knowledge. They are motivated to contribute their skills while learning new things. One way to serve and learn is membership on a nonprofit board.

The nonprofit world is bigger than you might think. According to a Johns Hopkins study, nonprofits employ 10.2% of the U.S. workforce and account for 6.6% of the U.S. gross domestic product.1 Twenty years ago, Lester M. Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, observed a global wave of "self-governing private organizations, not dedicated to distributing profits to shareholders or directors, pursuing public purposes outside the formal apparatus of the state."2

Growth has continued. Nonprofits are diverse, ranging from small local organizations to associations with global reach. Their budgets may rival mid-sized corporations. Some CEOs of larger charities earn more than $1 million a year.3

Aside from professional societies, most board opportunities are local. Many nonprofits issue calls for volunteers, which may include board positions.4 As with any leadership position, a good fit is essential. Humane societies, for example, don’t want board members who dislike cats or dogs.

All boards seek a balance of skills (such as backgrounds in finance, HR and strategic planning) for their committees. Commitment to an organization’s purpose and a strong resume are musts. The process mirrors a job search, requiring networking and personal branding, but for a higher purpose.

Rewards and requirements

Time and attention are key requirements for board members. Members who participate fully know the organization, its mission, structure, history, policies, legal and regulatory environment, finances, strategy and risk profile. Board members establish mission, strategy and policy. They hire, support and evaluate the executive director; conduct planning; acquire and manage resources; and establish an ethical tone at the top that reduces risks to reputation. These are big responsibilities and require commitments with no financial gain.

Board members of large corporations, however, may receive hundreds of thousands of dollars. In an economic environment that has seriously challenged nonprofits during the last five years, boards play critical leadership roles that enable nonprofits to survive and to continue their work.

Significant learning comes from active participation in organizational governance. Networking and visibility in the community are enhanced. Credentials of community service are increasingly valued and supported by employers. At a deeper level, it’s an opportunity to lead where the needs of others come first.5 This type of leadership isn’t easy. Some boards function superbly. Others show up at meetings without clear purpose as the executive director does a solo act. Fortunately, during the last decade, more organizations have adopted a model that better engages members’ talents.


Because governance was regarded as a series of routine tasks, it didn’t get much attention until the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act of 2002. SOX requires greater disclosure to protect investors from fraud after a series of scandals at for-profits such as Tyco, WorldCom and Enron. As nonprofit boards were increasingly scrutinized, the authors of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards identified limitations of board purpose as a central issue.

Three necessary modes of leadership were defined: fiduciary, which is in line with boards’ traditional role of exercising stewardship of assets and legal compliance in support of mission; strategic, which refers to establishing program priorities and setting a course; and generative, which means engaging together in deeper learning and change.6

According to author Richard Chait, "generative work conveys the gift of helping executives see things better, improving their perception and perspective so that they are in a better position to invent new goals, to discard old goals, to better see problems and to discard problems that really are not that important in the long run."7

Quality professionals may question whether they are prepared for board involvement. Contemporary nonprofit boards demand all the skills assessed by the ASQ-certified manager of quality/organizational excellence exam. Boards offer opportunities to practice stewardship, establish goals and conduct planning that considers the needs of society and the organization’s contributions. Those who have a call to service should scout organizations with missions that inspire and board practices that require leadership. Not only will careers improve, but society will, too.

References and notes

  1. Lester M. Salamon, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, Megan Haddock and Helen Tice, "The State of Global Civil Society and Volunteering: Latest Findings from the Implementation of the UN Nonprofit Handbook," Working paper No. 49, Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, 2012.
  2. Lester M. Salamon, "The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector," Foreign Affairs, July-August 1994, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/50105/lester-m-salamon/the-rise-of-the-nonprofit-sector.
  3. "2013 Charity CEO Compensation Study," Charity Navigator, Oct. 1 2013, www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=studies.ceo.
  4. Find volunteer centers at the Hands on Network at www.handsonnetwork.org. Find ASQ opportunities at http://asq.org/communities-networking/index.html.
  5. For more information about servant leadership, see Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, 25th anniversary edition, Paulist Press, 2002.
  6. Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, Wiley, 2004.
  7. "Governance as Leadership: An Interview With Richard P. Chait," Great Boards, Summer 2005.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.

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