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Tenure-track professors and nonprofit opportunities: how joining a board of directors can benefit your career and life


Associate professors seeking tenure need to develop a broad network, stand out amongst their peers, and appeal to members of the faculty. One of the key methods to successfully securing tenure is in the form of service to a community, particularly through joining a board of directors for a nonprofit organization. In the United States, there are approximately 45,500 PhDs employed by the nonprofit sector.1  Board members provide expertise and insight that support a variety of initiatives while also contributing positively to their careers.

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Organizations with the most effective boards host members who are actively engaged at numerous levels in the work of their organization. Says Kathy Spahn, CEO of Helen Keller International (HKI): “At the board level, HKI sets measurable standards and mission-critical targets […] We are self-reflective and open to criticizing ourselves, and that frees us up to speak about HKI’s challenges and how to address them.”2  Being partial to conversations such as these, and being an active contributor, can effectively showcase one’s professional value while networking and building meaningful connections.


Your career as a tenure-track professor can be improved by a more well-rounded approach to solving problems inside and outside of academia

In securing a role as a board member, academics can also experience numerous professional benefits that impart unique value to their portfolio of experience. As of 2018, less than 2% of nonprofit board members were under 303 – by engaging on a board as a potentially younger professional, aspiring tenure-track professors provide a point of view that is rare and lauded within a tight community. Companies looking for board members appreciate varying points of view, and experiences like these build important and applicable soft skills. “[Board membership is] a fantastic way for emerging young leaders to get involved in their communities, take on new organizational roles, and shape and own different types of leadership skills,” says Scott Downes, a former board member The Colorado Trust.4

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Working on interpersonal and problem-solving skills within an engaged, challenging setting can also provide a more well-rounded approach to solving problems inside and outside of academia. Nonprofit board members benefit from first-hand discoveries that can positively impact their personal research, approach to teaching, or ability to contribute to faculty members’ academic initiatives.

When and if considering adding the title of ‘board member’ to one’s professional roster, questions to ask before joining a board are:

  • Do my goals align with this organization and its board?
  • Will my skills or expertise have an impact on furthering the goals of this organization?
  • Are there members of this board I can learn from?
  • How will my research or personal development benefit from this position?
  • Am I able to fulfill the requirements necessary of me?

Once decided on a route of execution, there are a number of resources available to academics on the hunt for the right board position. Knowing the tools available can help successfully match you to a position that can benefit your tenure-track in the immediate and long-term.




[1] Cody, J. (2015). “Why PhDs Shouldn’t Overlook a Career With a Nonprofit Organization.” Retrieved from
[2]  Jonker, K., Meehan, W.F. III. (2014, March 5). “A Better Board Will Make You Better.” Retrieved from
[3]  Price, N. (2018, February 16). “Why Should You Volunteer for a Nonprofit Board?” Retreived from
[4] Gibson. (2015, December 4). “Get On Board: The Value and Importance of Nonprofit Board Service.” Retrieved from
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