I have found that volunteering in various community activities can provide meaningful lessons for physician leaders. I think it is especially useful to work on a nonprofit board. Doing so provides real value to your community while enhancing several important skills.


A Touching Letter

About fifteen of us were sitting around the conference room table. The hospice executive director was reading a letter from a client's daughter.

The daughter wrote about how thankful she was for all of the support that had been provided for her family during the days leading up to her mother's death. The family had grown quite attached to the hospice staff, and they to her. The daughter explained how they had become like family. Her mother was at peace during her final days and they were comforted by this.

As a member of the hospice board of directors, I was touched by the sincere gratitude expressed by the daughter. I was impressed and proud by how committed the staff were. And I was thankful to be a part of this team.

It's a Business, Too

As I reflect on my involvement on this board, it occurs to me that I have learned many lessons that helped me as a physician leader and executive. Like other hospice organizations, it is a very successful business. Many nonprofit organizations (NPOs) provide an opportunity to learn leadership skills while providing a valuable community service.

Some of the nonprofits that physicians typically get involved with include:

  • Hospitals
  • Charitable support organizations such as the American Lung Association and Arthritis Foundation
  • Research and education foundations such as the ALS Association and the March of Dimes
  • Advocacy organizations like the National Council on Aging
  • Other local community foundations
  • Local or state health departments (technically, many of these are governmental, but function like an NPO)

They each have a clear mission, vision and values. They have the same financial, marketing, financial, legal and HR issues as other corporations. And the same leadership principles apply. There is a lot to learn when working on such boards.

As a board member, we don't get involved in the day-to-day running of the agency, but we do get involved in many significant decisions, not the least of which is recruiting and hiring the executive director and participating in strategic planning.

Getting Involved

Getting involved is not as simple as just asking to join a board, however. Generally, there is a formal process for identifying and appointing new members.

Show an interest in working with local agencies and a willingness to donate your time. Get to know the directors of these organizations and their current board members. Let them know that you are interested in participating. You will certainly be asked to assist on certain projects. Provide meaningful assistance and, eventually, you will be approached about serving on the board.

Five Skills for the Emerging Physician Leader

Here is a list of skills that a physician can learn by volunteering on such boards.


1. Reading Financial Reports

Most boards will be reviewing regular financial reports (at least quarterly and annually). Like most large corporations, NPOs typically produce income statements (also called profit and loss statements) and balance sheets on an accrual basis. This differs from financials for a small practice, which are often based on cash accounting. They are quite similar to financials produced by hospitals and other corporations.


2. Marketing

Many NPOs will do market analysis, create marketing plans, utilize public relations techniques, operate web sites, hold promotional fund-raisers and purchase advertising. These are all topics that a physician manager or leader needs to learn more about.


3. Understand Legal Issues

It is not  unusual for an NPO board to be involved with discussions about compliance, intellectual property, HIPAA and other legal issues. Many of the topics discussed at our hospice board meetings, for example, were similar to those discussed at our hospital senior executive meetings.


4. Practice Project Planning and Meeting Management

These two issues overlap so much that I put them together. It is common for a board member to chair a subcommittee of the board. In that role, the physician will be able to apply time management, running of meetings, setting agendas and involving everyone on the committee. Hopefully, all of the issues discussed in Nine Maxims for Masterful Meetings can be put to use.


5. Improve Communication Skills

The same listening skills and ability to probe and question that I described in Effective Teams Crave Conflict will be developed on an NPO board.

These are five skills that every physician leader needs. By studying the financials, discussing the marketing and legal issues, and chairing subcommittees, these skills will be developed.

Two More Reasons to Participate

6. Exposure to Other Community Leaders

An NPO board is a great way to network with local community leaders. You might even find future collaborators, partners or employees.

7. Contribute to the Community

It should be obvious that this is a great way to support your community and promote important services. This can provide a sense of purpose that only comes with giving to meaningful causes.

A Few Final Thoughts

There are probably more good reasons to participate on a nonprofit board. Aside from the time commitment, there are really no downsides to doing so.

In the comments, please list some of the nonprofit boards you have joined. And tell us about the best experiences you had on your board.

As always, please Subscribe Here.

On an unrelated note: check out my recent guest post on Future Proof MD where I provide a short overview of the use of relative value units (RVUs) in physician compensation plans.

Other questions, thoughts or suggestions? Email me at john.jurica.md@gmail.com.