So You Want To Serve on a Nonprofit Board Without Giving Money or Fundraising

"They should want me for my expertise, not my checkbook," is the perspective I hear from some people interested in serving on nonprofit boards.  So what’s the real story here?  What exactly do nonprofits need and want from you?  Are they just after your money?


The truth about nonprofits and their funding:


  1. Nonprofit revenue models are complicated.  In business, the revenue model tends to be pretty straightforward: there’s a product or service and a price.  For each nonprofit, however, there are usually multiple revenue sources (federal, state, and local government; corporate, foundation, and private philanthropy; and fees for services) that each have different requirements and expectations, often with onerous reporting demands and regulations, all timed differently, and most varying from year-to-year based on new and often unpredictable funding trends and interests.  Often the payers are third-party, so they are not receiving the services directly.
  2. Most nonprofit services require significant subsidies through philanthropy.  (If a homeless shelter could be profitable, it would be a hotel.)
  3. Most of the time, if a nonprofit asks people outside of the board for funding, the "outsider" will expect the nonprofit to demonstrate that the board members themselves and their companies and foundations are highly generous; outsiders are reluctant to invest in a nonprofit where its own board members do not believe enough in the organization to support it.
  4. The nonprofit business model is changing; some might say it’s exploding, given trends that are not dissimilar from changes in the for-profit sector.  For example, in both for-profits and nonprofits, it is sometimes becoming less important to invest in a "place" (Amazon as a bookseller for example), and more important to build audiences through electronic communication, or distribute services through hub and spoke models.  In the current economy, nonprofits are also increasingly collaborating with each other (Atlas Perfoming Arts) and with businesses (Partners in Preservation) in order to expand their impact and increase efficiencies. And nonprofits are pursuing more enterprising approaches (DC Central Kitchen).
  5. Philanthropy models are also changing, in many cases becoming more business-like (Ford Foundation), engaging the public in grant decision-making (American Express), and involving business executives and professionals on nonprofit boards to increase impact through service and also foster leadership development as a complement to corporate philanthropy (Clifford Chance).


What the board and organization really need from you as a board member:


  1. Expertise from business people who will help the organization strengthen its business model to be more successful in today’s marketplace.  For example, expertise in branding and messaging, customer service, public relations, pricing, business strategy, and advocacy (for government and philanthropic funding). 
  2. Pro-bono services from your company or firm.
  3. Expertise from people in the "industry" of the nonprofit, who understand nonprofits and the work of the particular organization, whether that’s in conservation, urban development, arts, or education.  (So, indeed, I believe there is a highly valuable role for nonprofit experts on nonprofit boards.)
  4. Diverse perspectives from people from a broad variety of cultures and backgrounds. Such diversity helps the board enrich its vision of the nonprofit’s potential, ensure that the organization benefits multitudes of people well, and expands its networks of support to maximize revenues.
  5. A financial contribution from each and every board member at some level in order to experience the pleasure of supporting the organization and demonstrate your support to others.  A highly generous financial contribution from those of you who have the means to do so, and meaningful contributions from your companies where such funding is available; this is particularly important to set the pace for fellow board members, new recruits, and prospective funders. 
  6. Your active participation in asking for financial support for the organization from a variety of sources.  If you believe in the compelling work of the organization – whether it’s preserving the environment, fighting poverty, protecting human rights, educating children, or providing healthcare – it’s easy to do. You are asking for support on behalf of the community and the people you serve...not for yourself.  Your role as a board member is to work with the nonprofit’s CEO, staff, and fellow board members to see where and how you can be most helpful in making the case – whether that’s in meetings with government liaisons, foundation or company representatives, or individuals whom you or the nonprofit knows.  And you should be talking about your board whenever you can to help build support.


There are many great reasons to join a nonprofit board, including your own personal and professional development. But, ultimately, you will only succeed and have a good experience if you choose a cause you care about.  And if you do care about it, it will be easy to do everything you can to help the organization to achieve success.  Do that and you will have an amazing experience and make the world a better place.

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  • Alice Korngold

    Bekina, Dian, Kevin, Sara - Thank you for your recent and thoughtful comments. As we learn from your input, there is no one-size-fits-all for a board model, and no one rule about whether and how much board members should contribute and raise. It depends on what your organization seeks to achieve.

    What's most important is for your board and CEO to consider the following: What do we envision to be our organization's greater potential over the coming years? What's the revenue model to achieve success? What will be the role of the board in working with the CEO to maximize the organization's success in a timely fashion? Based on the role of the board, what are our expectations of each board member, and how will we ensure that each board member lives up to to such expectations? Based on what we seek to accomplish, how many board members will it take?  What variety of qualifications will we need, including in terms of diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, skills, expertise, and the capacity, will, and might to give, raise, and otherwise generate funds?  What committees will we need to focus on key board matters? What will be the focus of board meetings in order to keep the board on track with its work in achieving success towards the vision?  Who should lead the board, and how do we develop next leaders? And how do we educate the board to best understand the work of the organization and in the context of the community and its needs?

    The board has legal and fiduciary responsibilities.  It also has a vital role in ensuring that the organization is advancing towards its greater vision in serving the community.  The board and each of its members should be able to look back after a few years and say, "Look what we have accomplished in helping to make this organization healthier, stronger, and more effective in serving the community."  That might mean making the organization bigger, or perhaps more focused, or even merging the nonprofit into a larger organization where its services will be more sustainable for the long-term.  It's the role of the board to figure that out with the CEO and make that happen.

  • Sara Cormeny

    Great article that's worth sharing with prospective board members or with EDs and their boards who are struggling to figure out what makes a good board member, thanks.

    I do think it's worth noting that not all pro bono services are worthy in-kind donations that (I feel) should "qualify" as an individual's donation in lieu of a financial contribution.  If the organization has not already decided it needs the services you're offering (marketing/web design help, management consulting, whatever) enough to pay for those services if you weren't donating them, then it's not an appropriate gift to qualify as equivalent to other board members' financial contributions.

    For myself, I would not serve on a nonprofit board where members were not required to give financially, to a level that is appropriate both to the organization's size and to the individual's means.  I am happy to serve on volunteer committees with non-donors. But I take the financial responsibility of being on a board very seriously and do not think that the elected board members, who (in the USA) have legally obligated themselves to uphold the fiscal health of the organization, can be considered serious about their board membership if they don't give.  I would suggest that commenter Dian has a fantastic roster of deeply committed volunteers on an Advisory Committee, but I am scratching my head to think that they would be considered the Board of the organization.  If she's considering growing the organization or taking other significant steps, I think she should reconsider the idea that a Board shouldn't be made up of financial donors.

    Thanks again!

  • Kevin Murray

    Very nice post, Alice. After 25 years in international nonprofits, I concluded that we needed three things from our boards: (1) Policy governance...overall policy direction, (2) Support/supervision of the ED and (3) A group that would take responsibility of developing resources for the organization. Policy governance requires subject expertise. Supporting the ED requires management strength. Provisioning the organization with resources requires generosity and the willingness and ability to access other resources in one's network. #3 was always the hardest to achieve. Every board member does not have to bring together these three strengths and different of these will be critical at different times, but you are right, Alice, that a Board member not interested in taking responsibility for building the organization's resource base will be of limited use to most boards.

  • Dian Corneliussen-James

    I was very interested in reading the article and the comments. I certainly believe the closing statement that you must choose a cause you care about.  I have my own non-profit (all-volunteer) and my Board members are all incredibly dedicated, bring very specific skills to the table and are self-starters, pro-active and team players.  But all have a vested interest.  The non-profit is for terminal breast cancer (support, awareness, research).  And all but one Board members has the disease.  

    On donations ... it has never occurred to us to ask Board members to donate ... nor would we do so.  I view the time these people give us, and their efforts to encourage others to donate, as being the greatest donation they could give. That being said, I'm sure most if not all do donate dollars when they can.  But it's not because they feel -- or are -- obligated, it is because they truly believe in the cause.   No one should work for a non-profit where they are so wishy-washy on the cause that they don't feel compelled to donate from time to time ... with no pressure and no request to do so.   

    As for my non-profit, our current Board knows solutions won't come our lifetimes, but we will feel greatly rewarded if in our lifetimes, we see even the beginnings of a shift by organizations that fund breast cancer research from the current position of an almost exclusive  pre-occupation with prevention and early detection (which has done nothing to lower the death rate) to a far more balanced focus that gives equal attention to transitioning stage IV breast cancer to a controlled, survivable disease.   

    My point is that you don't join a non-profit and a cause for a job ... you join a cause for the cause.  You need to find a cause you truly believe in  ... one that gives your life meaning ... and that is run by persons, whose work and dedication you respect.  You need a non-profit where you will feel rewarded when the non-profit makes progress in achieving its goals.   If you are not joining for those reasons, then why on earth join?   

  • Bekina Mirekuah

    this brings such deep insights to me, I have started  non-profit organisations but i still don't know how to get the right persons who will be committed to the course. 

  • Lin Romano

    John, I find it disheartening that you have had such unfortunate board experiences. Yet I'm pleased to report that the "rare and unnatural act" of effective board governance is alive and well at the nonprofits in which I am involved. I play an active role on the executive committee of a nonprofit with a working and contributory board, and the organization at which I am employed also has a fully engaged board. I hope you will research nonprofits and join one in which your talents will be well-utilized and respected. Really, there ARE many who fit this profile!

  • Alice Korngold

    Lin, thank you for your recent comment!  It's great to hear that you are having such a rewarding board experience. Your experience is an inspiration for others who are contemplating board service. As a member of the board leadership, you must have a lot to do with the board's effectiveness.

    John, if you're still reading my blog, thank you for your comment as well.  I've seen boards run the gamut from bad to great. The good
    news is that - generally speaking -- boards are making dramatic improvements since 1996.  Boards are becoming more self-aware as a
    result of a few factors, including financial strains on organizations, scandals in the
    media, and the spotlight on good governance.  Also, there are abundantly more resources to support and advance good governance than
    there have been in the past.  At the same
    time, there needs to be continued momentum forward, with expectations from
    funders and others that boards exercise fiduciary responsibility and also envision and help to achieve the organization's greater potential.

    John, I do think that if you use your past experience to be cautious in choosing your next board (if you want one), you can indeed find a board and organization where you can add value and have a rewarding experience.  Here are a couple of my posts about choosing a nonprofit board and

    Board engagement is truly high-impact service.  But do be very thoughtful and purposeful in finding and choosing the right board for you, and then take your role seriously.  Be generous, and also have fun!

  • John Agno

    My experience is what nonprofit boards really need is balanced expertise but what they feel they need is people with money or people who can solicit people with money. For example, when I joined a large nonprofit board as Vice Chair because the organization was in an early stage turnaround situation, I discovered that the treasurer could not read a financial statement. In another case as a board member, the nonprofit board I blindly joined was only a "rubber stamp" board to an chief executive officer (CEO) who eventually was caught participating in fraudulant acts.

    Here is my favorite quote regarding nonprofit boards:

    "Effective governance by the board of a "nonprofit" organization is a rare and unnatural act. Only the most uncommon of nonprofit boards functions as it should by harnessing the collective efforts of accomplished individuals to advance the institution's mission and long-term welfare." ("The New Work of the Nonprofit Board" in the September-October 1996 issue of the Harvard Business Review)