Students gain Unique Exposure to Board Governance

With $26 billion annually donated to charitable organizations and 8.3 percent of wages and salaries paid in the United States coming from the nonprofit sector, there is a significant portion of the US economy and population focused on making a difference. Collectively, we are faced with the task of learning how to use these resources efficiently to have the greatest impact on our community.

This year, twenty-six RC and EC students have been selected as Harvard Business School Board Fellows to learn how to systematically tackle this challenge. These students, serving as non-voting Board Members across seventeen nonprofit organizations, are applying their skills to help local nonprofit organizations achieve a broader impact on their local, national and global constituencies. At the same time, students get a first hand experience of nonprofit board governance.

The following statements from Victor Echevarria (ND) and Cassy Howell (OC), Board Fellows for “My Turn,” provide their perspective on the Board Fellows Program.

Briefly describe your project
My Turn is transitioning from a small regional organization to one with national reach. Their board structure was ill-prepared to scale with the organization so Barbara Duffy, their executive director brought us on and asked us to check out best practices from other organizations that underwent the same transition. We ultimately interviewed five other non-profits about their board structures and recruiting strategies and presented our findings to the My Turn board of directors.

Describe your experience interacting with “My Turn”
Barbara is a stellar executive director. Working with her and Paul, the chairman of the board, was an absolute pleasure. We came in after their expansion plans were already underway, so they had a rough idea of what their governing and regional boards should look like. Having some initial guidelines from them helped our research immensely.

What impact do you hope to make at the end of the day?
Their board members had largely ignored the implications that the My Turn expansion had for them. They focused all of their efforts on the operational strategy instead of asking themselves how the board member roles and responsibilities might change. Barbara had tried, with limited success, to raise these issues before but lacked the image of impartiality that we brought to the table. Our presentation was scheduled at the end of the board meeting, and the message came through loud and clear – they kept us for an additional 45 minutes asking questions and soliciting recommendations. By the end, they had agreed to make board evolution their number one strategic priority for the next board meeting discussion.

What have you learned from your Board Fellows experience?
In this case, we saw an example of a board that focused its attention more on day-to-day operations than the organization’s long-term strategic vision. The organizational transition from small to large is complex and brings up many issues that the board may not consider as carefully as they should. It’s not easy for board members to swallow the possibility that they may not be a good fit for the organization three years down the line. It’s very much analogous to a startup company whose venture backers want to make significant leadership changes.

The Harvard Business School Board Fellows program connects HBS students with a one-year nonprofit leadership engagement as non-voting members of an organization’s board. Students complete a strategic project for the organization with mentorship from the executive director or a current member of the board. The goal of this program is twofold: (1) provide MBA students with valuable leadership development in nonprofit board governance and (2) provide nonprofit organizations with an MBA skill-set to advance a specific project. Harvard Business School Board Fellows are selected in the fall.

May 7, 2007
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