In this episode, we discuss how volunteering to serve a nonprofit board provides leadership experience and expedites career transition.

A Book Review

As I’ve studied the issue of career transition, I’ve often encountered burnout as a reason to shift careers.

But there is an ignored cousin to burnout: physician suicide. The physician suicide rate is double that of the general population. And it appears, at least anecdotally, that the training of medical students contributes to the likelihood of suicide in both medical students themselves, and then later in practicing physicians.

Suicide is a tragedy, whenever it occurs. And in this age of physician shortages, the physicians lost each year to suicide affect thousands of spouses, children, parents and friends, and an estimated one million patients.

Rather than try to address this issue myself, I want to raise your awareness of this problem and of the work of Dr. Pamela Wible. Dr. Wible is a family physician who addressed her own frustration with modern medical practice by creating and promoting Ideal Medical Care.

Physician Suicide Expert

Along the way, she also became interested in physician and medical student suicide. She has now become an expert on the subject, and a resource for suicidal physicians and the families of suicide victims.

She speaks on the topic, hosts a retreat to help physicians establish a more holistic medical practice, and continues to provide support and encouragement to struggling medical students and physicians.

I recently read her book Physician Suicide Letters Answered. It is eye-opening and heart-rending to read. In addition to background on the topic, and some proposed solutions, it consists largely of private letters and last words from doctors who could no longer bear the pain of an abusive medical system.

It’s an important topic that should not be ignored, even as we each try to deal with our own burnout and pursuit of renewed joy. I strongly encourage you to read the book, support Dr. Wible’s vision, and reach out to your colleagues if you sense that they’re in pain.

Build Leadership Skills As You Serve a Nonprofit

In this episode, I’m going to talk about nonprofit boards. Specifically, I’ll describe:

  • My experiences serving and leading nonprofit boards;
  • How serving can help in your career transition, and your personal and work life; and,
  • What not to do when serving on a board.

serve a nonprofit volunteer

During my career, I’ve been a part of several nonprofit boards and committees. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, serving on these boards helped me tremendously to transition from clinician to full-time hospital executive.

I’ll explain exactly how later.

I believe those experiences would have helped me in pursuing other non-clinical careers.

I think my experiences are fairly common, but they probably only apply to other healthcare-related nonprofit boards of a certain size. These boards generate annual net revenues of between three million and 350 million dollars. And all of my experiences have been as an unpaid volunteer.

Therefor, my observations might differ from others who are involved with much larger nonprofit organizations, or for-profit companies.

Unlikely Volunteer

I’m an introvert. So, I’m more energized when I can take my time and work on problems alone, or in small groups. I’m not energized by large groups of people, or giving a speech.

In spite of that, I'm a joiner and a people pleaser. I like working on worthwhile projects and helping others in achieving their goals. So, I’m inclined to say yes when asked to help with an organization. And once I’m involved, I want to do a good job that benefits the organization and all of its constituents. Like you, I’m proud of myself when I do a good job.

As a result, over the years I became involved with several nonprofit organizations, serving on their boards, or on one of the committees of their boards. Here is a list of the boards and committees that I joined over the years:

  • Hospital Board (member)
  • Hospice Board (Committee Chair, VP, President)
  • County Medical Society Board (All positions, including President)
  • County Board of Health/Health Department Board (President)
  • Private High School Annual Fundraiser Committee (Co-Chair with my wife, Kay)
  • State Medical Society CME Accreditation Committee (Chair, this enabled me to attend quarterly board meetings)
  • Accreditation Council for CME Accreditation Review Committee (member)

I’m currently still serving my Board of Health, my County Medical Society, and the local Hospice Board.

I assumed that being involved with these organizations would provide me the satisfaction of contributing to a good cause. I was committed to supporting the medical profession (through the county and state medical societies) or filling the need for services for terminally ill patients (through hospice).

But I discovered that there were many unanticipated benefits to my participation. In a moment, I’m going to describe some of those benefits.

What Nonprofit Boards Are Looking For

Let me describe the reasons that I was recruited by these boards. I discovered the reasons after serving and helping to recruit new members as board positions opened up.

New members are generally selected from recommendations by current members. Some boards are mandated to include physicians, while others seek out physicians for other reasons.

For example, health boards often require a specific number of physicians and dentists. Boards like to include members who have a certain reach in the community, often for purposes of fundraising.

Desired Attributes

But beyond those considerations, a board wants to involve members who:

  • Are well-respected in the community;
  • Have demonstrated a willingness to help when asked;
  • Reliably show up and fulfill commitments; and,
  • Always follow-through on assigned tasks.

There are some further points I want to make about these factors.

In anything that you do, including your efforts to pursue an alternate career, it is important that your reputation, integrity, and honesty are NEVER in question. Even if your current job makes you miserable or drives you crazy, your goal should be to perform it with dignity and integrity.

You may be counting the days until you can leave this job, but you must continue to be present until that day comes, and consistently perform at your highest level.

Even if you plan to leave clinical work behind completely, do not take shortcuts, skimp on your documentation, or be chronically behind on your schedule. A sloppy, unorganized and chronically tardy physician will not be an attractive candidate for a board position, or for a new nonclinical job.

The bottom line is this, your reputation should be PRISTINE if you want to be considered for that job in management, or as a physician advisor or medical director, and for that position on a nonprofit board.

Time Commitment

Second, you should not accept board position if you don’t believe that you can honestly take the time for the meetings and for the additional work that might be required.

serve a nonprofit respect time

Photo by Noor Younis on Unsplash

The work is generally not a heavy burden. However, as a board member, you should be prepared to:

  • Complete an orientation;
  • Prepare ahead of time for meetings by reviewing minutes and other written reports;
  • Participate in, and possibly chair a committee; and,
  • Attend community events.

If you cannot carve out the time to contribute, then don’t accept the appointment.

What Not to Do:

Here are three common ways I’ve seen some of my physician colleagues squander a board position:

  • They miss most of the meetings;
  • come late to every meeting; or,
  • fail to follow-up on even minimal tasks they agreed to do (such as contacting someone or looking up some information).

Abusing your position in this way is worse than never joining a board. These behaviors indicate that you’re either disorganized or lack the integrity to fulfill your commitments.

5 Benefits of Serving a NonProfit

Now to our primary reason for discussion of this topic. What are the major benefits I discovered by serving and sometimes leading these organizations?

  1. Learning New Skills
    • management skills
    • leadership skills
    • other skill unique to the organization
  2. Networking
  3. Building Confidence
  4. Recognition and Reputation
  5. Joy and Meaning

Learning Management, Leadership and Other Skills

This may be the most important reason relative to career change. The opportunities for learning are tremendous.

As you attend these types of meetings, you’re usually going to be exposed to management and leadership principles that you won’t learn running a medical practice, or participating in a hospital medical staff.

Management Skills

You’ll have an opportunity see how meetings are run. Board presidents are generally very successful businessmen and women who have experience running effective meetings. You’ll see them demonstrate a balance of tactful yet direct communication.

The State Medical Society meetings were the most formal I’ve witnessed. They were run by strictly following Robert's Rules of Order. That was quite interesting.

Most boards are not quite so formal. But they do require that meetings be orderly and productive.

Many boards include attorneys, whose perspective reminds us of the importance of following bylaws and policies and procedures.

As a board member, you’ll be involved in project planning, at least at an oversight level. And you’ll often be asked to participate in strategic planning. I was once asked to lead a SWOT analysis for the hospice directors and managers.

If you're not familiar with that term, SWOT is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A SWOT analysis is often performed as part of a management or strategic plan to help identify important goals.

You’ll also have an opportunity to review financial reports. For most medical practices, cash-based accounting is utilized. Now you’ll learn about accrual accounting. And you’ll be asked to review and approve annual budgets.

You’ll also learn about marketing, branding and public relations.

Leadership Skills

As vice chair or chair of the board, you’ll learn leadership skills. You’ll learn to read people, communicate skillfully, and include everyone’s input into important decisions.

You may be charged with leading a review of the organizational mission. And, you’ll be asked to project the vision and values of the organization.

The local newspaper or radio station may seek you out for comment. Or you may need to join the executive director in meetings with other community leaders on important local issues.

You’ll likely get a crash course in fundraising.

And, you might find yourself leading a recruitment committee tasked to find a new executive director for the organization.

Organization-Specific Skills

In addition to general leadership and management skills, you’ll learn more about a specific field. As a hospice board member, I’ve become much more knowledgeable about palliative care, hospice care, the Medicare definitions of hospice services, and other issues related to end of life care.

Although I have a master's degree in public health, by serving on the board of health, I’ve greatly expanded my understanding of communicable disease outbreaks, environmental health, food safety, sanitation and public education.


Your network of colleagues and confidants will naturally develop. Instead of just one or two select mentors, you will develop a “tribe of mentors,” a term coined by Tim Ferris.

As a result of my board memberships, I have developed a network that includes attorneys, accountants, IT experts, bankers, investors, small business owners, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, mayors, state legislators, hospital executives, and other community leaders.

serve a nonprofit networking

I can think of many times when I sought information or advice from one of these associates. You can imagine how these connections might be helpful in career transition.

And you'll serve as a mentor to others. As you provide advice and counsel to younger board members, your network will continue to grow.

My attorney and accountant both serve on one of the boards I mentioned earlier. My initial appointment as a hospital executive was certainly not hurt by the fact that I had been a hospital board member for several years before my employment.

Recognition and Reputation

As I noted earlier, reputation is of vital importance when developing new career options. On a nonprofit board, you will be contributing to your community on a grand scale.

Helping distribute meals at a soup kitchen is one way to serve. But leading a fundraising effort to raise thousands of dollars can potentially impact many more people. Setting the strategic direction of an organization will potentially affect hundreds or thousands of those in need.

Over time, your participation and contribution will become a source authority or gravitas. This provides opportunities to promote your favorite projects or enhance your career.

You’ll be seen as a community leader with direct benefits to your current career. It will help promote your medical group, build support for a new clinical service at your hospital, or attract partners for a joint venture. And this reputation will help when applying for a leadership position in a nearby hospital or medical group.

Building Confidence

Most physicians, after years of intense training, feel confident in treating patients. But we don’t always feel confident about trying new things, or interacting in a non-clinical setting.

However, after working on a team of other professionals in a board setting, you will naturally begin to feel more confident when working in larger teams. You’ll have an opportunity to learn from potential mentors with a diverse set of backgrounds.

I was somewhat surprised by the insights I developed as a result of being involved in these community organizations. They often solicit intelligence about local employment trends and planned company expansions, or local community college and university initiatives.

You can therefore develop a broader perspective on issues affecting your community. As a result, your opinion will be sought by other community leaders, and your physician colleagues.

Joy and Personal Satisfaction

Many of us want to leave medicine because we no longer experience the joy of helping individual patients. Contributing to a worthy cause through participation and leadership on a board is one way to recapture that joy.

And, by helping us to learn new skills, network with others, enhance our reputations, and build confidence, it can vastly improve our chances of finding a new career. And that will rekindle our joy as much as participation in the good cause itself.

Summing Up

Those are the FIVE benefits:

  1. Learning New Skills
    • management skills
    • leadership skills
    • other skills unique to the organization
  2. Networking
  3. Building Confidence
  4. Recognition and Reputation
  5. Joy and Meaning

Let’s end today’s episode with a quote.

serve a nonprofit gandhi quote


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Next week, I’ll have an interview in which my guest and I discuss how to prepare an awesome resume.

So join me next time on Physician Nonclinical Careers.


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If you'd like to listen to the premier episode and show notes, you can find it here: Getting Acquainted with Physician NonClinical Careers Podcast – 001