What Does 'Getting Involved' at a Non-Profit Really Mean?

People are taught: “One way of getting new business is getting involved at a non-profit.” You should be getting involved for different reasons, specifically a belief in the cause and a desire to give back to your community,but it can lead to business. So what does “getting involved" actually mean?

It doesn’t stop at joining. Visibility equals credibility. The New York Lottery used the tagline: “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”

There are several tiers of involvement in most community organizations. Since your career consumes most of your time, you want to choose carefully. Nothing destroys goodwill as fast as a person who makers a splash when arriving, makes promises to commit time and money, does neither and vanishes. Here are some of the most common roles, their general responsibilities, expectations and time commitment for you to consider.

General member

You are a card-carrying member. In this case, it means you are an active member of your non-profit. You pay dues. You attend some meetings, ask intelligent questions and mingle before and afterwards. Your only real responsibility is to explain the mission of the group to an outsider who asks. The time commitment is low; you pick and choose when to attend meetings.

Committee member

Projects are undertaken by teams serving on committees. Membership, event planning and fundraising are examples. You'll be expeted to attend most meetings and learn the scope of the project, discern the politics and commit to specific tasks.

You are obligated to attend most or all committee meetings and your role is integral to the project’s success. If it involves raising money, you're asked to support and must deliver and demonstrate team player skills. The time commitment is higher. If the committee meets once a month, you are there. Meetings run at least an hour and you should allow time for tasks you have committed to do.

Committee chair

You run the committee. Avoid the “We really need someone to…” requests where no committee is in place, unless you want to be a solo performer. Often committee chairs are board members, but in all cases they shoulder responsibility for that activity. Well-run organizations track progress, expenses and results.

Your main directive is to get the job done through people you can’t reward or fire. This is not an easy task sometimes so it means having backup systems in place and that is often you. This means a greater time commitment since you are preparing for meetings in addition to running them. You attend every regular meeting plus committee meetings. That 1-2 hour committee member time requirement at least doubled.

Board member

Most organizations have a 12-36 member board of directors or trustees. Museums and cultural organizations are run similarly to Fortune 500 corporations. Many community groups are much looser. Your initial level of involvement might be with a community group that holds few general membership meetings but has a large volunteer board that meets monthly.

Boards are usually described as "oversight" or "working" boards. Museums are usually oversight, for example, while historical societies are working boards. The clue to look for is professional staffing. If there isn't one, you are on a working board and you are often a committee head. This means preparing for and attending all board meetings to deliver detailed, number heavy reports on committee activities. Expect detailed questions and “helpful suggestions." You're expected to attend every event and lend support (read: money) throughout the year. The time commitment is similar to a committee chair and board meetings run at least a couple of hours every month.


The board usually has a president (or chair), secretary, treasurer and a few vice presidents. These roles are carefully defined in the bylaws. Often there’s legal accountability involved. (e.g. Treasurer).

As an officer, you shepherd the committee heads to confirm work is getting done. You represent the organization in the community and, together, you run the board meetings. Roles are usually defined and you need to keep the organization in the black while delivering on the mission. The time commitment for officers is almost opened ended as they usually serve on multiple committees, talk among themselves and prepare for board meetings.

Executive committee

This is the board within the board. The executive comittee usually consists of the officers. Almost identical to the level above, it’s listed here because it has an additional time commitment and level of responsibility.

The executive committee usually considers the big issues, research the facts and present recommendations to the entire board for a vote of approval. Meetings are rare, except in times of crisis. This means being available for meetings on short notice and might be done via conference call or Skype if necessary. Be prepared to make quick decisions on just the information available. The time commitment isn't much greater than an officer as they are often in frequent communication.

Emeritus board members

You’ve won the game. After years of service you might step off the board into a “halfway house” allowing you to continue attending board meetings yet not have the time responsibilities of board members. Organizations often have advisory councils. The expectations are similar to general membership. You pick and choose meetings that you want to attend, support the organization financially and offer advice. There's little time commitment but you can attend board meeting as your like or serve on a committee.

Different tiers of involvement come with different time commitments. Your professional skills are often on display so choose the level of involvement where you can balance involvement with responsibility.