Nonprofit Boards: Maybe Not a Pipeline

by Julie Graber | on 18 Feb 2019

I have to confess that I cringe a little every time I hear someone suggest that women who are interested in serving on a corporate board should seek experience on a nonprofit board as part of their journey.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad idea, but it may not be the best idea. It’s a place women can end up spinning their wheels as opposed to gaining traction in pursuit of a corporate board seat. And it takes a lot of time and energy to be a good nonprofit board member - something that most women have in short supply.

Yes, serving on a nonprofit board can be a terrific leadership experience. It exposes you to governance and financial issues that have parallels to the corporate world, and it can expand your network beyond your company and industry. It’s a way to give back and to contribute to the quality of life in your community. And yes, it may lead to other opportunities, both paid and volunteer.


There are very few nonprofit boards where public company CEOs and others in the network of board directors serve AND attend the board meetings (they attend, not their representative). These are the only boards that would give you the network and visibility with the people who could recommend you for a corporate board appointment. In most communities, the only boards that meet this criteria would be the largest nonprofits: colleges and universities, hospital systems, community foundations, arts and human services organizations, and United Way. If you’re looking to network with board influencers, these are the boards you would need to target. It’s a small, small percentage of the nonprofit board seats that need to be filled in most communities. (The other place you find CEOs and board directors serving on nonprofit boards is at the national level.)

If servings on a nonprofit board was truly a stepping stone to a board seat in the corporate setting, we wouldn’t have the challenges we have in increasing the number of women serving public company boards, because women have been taking care of nonprofits for years. We probably started most of them. We certainly staff them. But one hasn’t led to the other.

And frankly, can you imagine anyone giving men the same advice?

I’m not knocking the importance of serving on a nonprofit board - I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to serve on the boards of a long list of nonprofits and I feel good about the contributions I’ve been able to make. But I’ve done it because I cared about each organization and its mission and the quality of life in my community, not because I expected it to lead to something else. And there isn’t a nonprofit out there that needs board members who are there for what they hope to get out of their participation as opposed to what they can give.

I’ve referenced Carol Bacchi’s work before - if this is the solution, how are we defining the problem? To suggest to women that they seek experience on a nonprofit board if they want a corporate board seat continues to point the finger at women as the problem. And it’s not women who need fixing. It’s the companies who only give lip service to a commitment to real gender diversity. Women are ready. It’s time for the companies to step up.