Joining a Nonprofit Board – Book Review

Joining a Nonprofit Board

Total read time: 3.5 minutes (approx.)


Marc J. Epstein and F. Warren McFarlan’s Joining a Nonprofit Board: What you Need to Know (2011) is aimed at business professionals who are considering taking on a board position or still acclimatising to board processes and responsibilities.

Joining a Nonprofit Board is centred on a discussion of the differences between non-profit and for-profit organisations and boards. It also discusses the additional skills and appropriate attitude that for-profit professionals ought to develop in order find their way in the non-profit sphere.


As a Professor of Management, Marc J. Epstein, has a wealth of expertise relating to governance, performance measurement, accountability and sustainability in both non-profit and for-profit spheres. F. Warren McFarlan is a Professor of Business Administration and has more than thirty years experience serving on boards. Both have produced a large number of publications on these subjects over their extensive careers. Epstein and McFarlan devised Joining a Nonprofit Board in response to a growing trend they recognised of business professionals taking a personal interest in non-profit organisations and seeking to participate outside of corporate contributions or organised volunteering. In Joining a Nonprofit Board, Epstein and McFarlan assess the non-profit world through the lens of business professionals and attempt to address the challenges of adapting business knowledge and experience to the non-profit world.


Unlike some other introductory manuals for non-profit board members, Joining a Nonprofit Board does assume some knowledge – mostly business understanding relating to for-profit companies. In this text, Epstein and McFarlan strive to translate this knowledge so that it is applicable to the non-profit world. This manual is primarily a general introduction to non-profit organisations, but it also contains a wealth of advice about board membership and related responsibilities.


Although Epstein and McFarlan’s informal tone is in line with a number of similar manuals, their inspirational style differs from the didactic approach of other texts. They offer vision and understanding rather than explicit direction and explicate each argument through real world examples. This style will be particularly appropriate for readers who learn most effectively from practical examples. Graphs, diagrams and detailed case studies are scattered throughout the book. A number of case studies are also used to articulate or expand on particular arguments, tips or discussions. Each chapter ends with a summing-up of the key points and a checklist of questions for prospective board members to ask concerning their boards, in order to better understand how it operates in relation to each issue. The appendices also contain further details about case studies, references, notes and a reading list to expand learning beyond completion of the book.


The different topics addressed in Joining a Nonprofit Board are set out clearly in the contents page and can be quite coherently read as three separate entities. The first two chapters present an excellent introduction to the non-profit sphere in general. The final three chapters cover the basics of board responsibilities and practices. The middle three chapters, Performance Measurement, Financial Strategy and Oversight and Philanthropy introduce specific issues, which the writers have identified as particularly significant and can be read individually if and when necessary.


The second chapter, Mission, is probably the most successful of the book and aims to school for-profit professionals on the significance of this feature of non-profit organisations. Epstein and McFarlan highlight the necessity of non-profit organisations having robust mission statements and the way in which the mission is inherent in all major operations of the organisation. Embedded in this chapter is also the astute recommendation that new or prospective board members become informed about the philosophy of their organisation and, in particular, the expression and development of its mission, in order to be as effective as possible on the board.


Given that this text is an American publication, there are a small number of terminology differences that those new to the non-profit sphere will need to be wary of. Readers should also be cautious before taking at face value some of Epstein and McFarlan’s more technical or legal guidance without seeking professional advice. Although it would be preferable to read an Australian publication of this type, the value of international publications cannot be negated, especially those that are largely generalist texts, as long as readers are willing to read critically and extract the applicable material.


Joining a Nonprofit Board offers a unique introduction to the non-profit world for for-profit professionals. It successfully demonstrates the significance of particular areas of the governance of non-profits and offers inspiration for growth and development for board members. Rather than being didactic and directing the actions of readers, Epstein and McFarlan make concise suggestions for better practices and describe how others have put these practices to good use – all with the aim of assisting business oriented individuals to explore and contribute to the non-profit sphere.


Published by Jossey-Bass, 2011. 202 pages.

Avatar About Julia Duffy

Julia is a writer and researcher at Better Boards. She has a passionate interest in the non-profit sector, particularly its legal and regulatory complexities and she follows all news and developments in this area keenly. Prior to joining Better Boards, Julia served as an intern at Philanthropy Australia. Julia has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne, majoring in Political Science and English Literature.

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