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Serving on a Nonprofit Board of Directors

On April 3rd, a panel of nonprofit board members and nonprofit executive directors shared with students their experiences of serving on nonprofit boards. Panelists included:

Mandy Taft-Pearman
A manager at The Bridgespan Group who has an MBA from Kellogg, and sits on the board of the Hale Reservation, a 1,200 acre land reservation located in Westwood, MA.

Pascha Griffiths
A mother of two and the founder and Executive Director of Possibilities Factory, an organization that empowers youth to improve their communities.

Arden O’Connor
An EC student from Section OD who founded Rediscovery, Inc, an organization that provides housing and other social services for children out of age for state-funded foster care homes. Arden is currently the Chairman of the Board for Rediscovery, Inc. and also sits on the board of the Harvard Club of Boston.

When deciding whether to serve on the board of a nonprofit, all three panelists emphasized the importance of being passionate about the mission of the organization. Mandy Taft-Pearman reminded us that, “you will be serving on a board after work, so choose something you are really passionate about. Do not do it just to boost your resume; that will not be satisfying for you.” In order to find a board to serve on, Taft-Pearman recommended networking with friends and classmates. Other resources to connect with nonprofits looking for board members include the United Way (which hosts a series of Board Fairs in major cities around the US) and Board Source (www.boardsource.org). Pascha Griffiths explained that when she recruited her board she looked for a diverse group of individuals who could meet specific needs of her organization – such as a lawyer, an accountant, and an educator. She was also looking for individuals who were passionate for the mission and have connections in the community to help advance her organization.

The role of the board varies by organizations, but Taft-Pearman claims, “it is a real responsibility and commitment, something that should be taken seriously. You have fiduciary and legal responsibility.” Board members for nonprofit organizations have a number of roles, ranging from hiring and firing the executive director to strategic planning to event planning to fundraising. Time commitments also vary, ranging from about two hours per month to two hours per week. Before joining a board, it is important to understand how often the board meets and how much time you will be required to spend on projects outside of board meetings.

When joining a board for the first time, how can HBS graduates gain credibility? Griffiths told us “to participate wholeheartedly. Also, think about your resources and what you can contribute. For example, [HBS students] that currently sit on my board were able to contribute meeting space on the HBS campus. It was something easy and simple, but it provided us with a quiet and clean space to hold meetings.” Taft-Pearman indicated that, “signaling that you are a team player is critical and with that comes some humility. Listen and pay attention. Also, be creative about fundraising. I was able to connect the organization with my company’s annual charity fundraiser, which provided them a hefty donation. That helped me build some credibility, even though I wasn’t financially able to write a check for that large an amount during my first year with the organization.” O’Connor adds, “work on a very tangible project early on. Show that you can add value to the organization.” Most importantly, “while you may want to swoop in and fix things, problems and solutions are not always as simple as they seem. Some of the problems have been entrenched in a nonprofit organization for a long time and you need to be realistic about what you can change,” adds Taft-Pearman.

Board leadership can sometimes go wrong. Taft-Pearman points out that “things can go wrong when there are mismatched expectations about the time commitment and who has ownership over which tasks. Also, when the board is not as involved as it should be, problems can arise in the organization after it is too late.” O’Connor also says, “Board meetings get tense when board member want to get too involved and micro-manage situations.” O’Connor reminds us that while board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization, they are to be overseers and not micro-managers of the minutia of day to day operations. Finally, Griffiths adds, “it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver. People in the nonprofit community talk, especially in the Boston area.”

The nonprofit world is growing and is looking for intelligent “young blood,” such as HBS graduates, to energize their boards. Just make sure you find an organization you are passionate about then make the commitment, and creatively use your resources and skills to make an impact!

The event was hosted by the Board Fellows Program, a program in the Social Enterprise Club, which places HBS students on nonprofit boards for a year to help them gain experience in board leadership. The Board Fellows Program would like to thank the Student Association for their generous grant in order to make this event possible.

April 22, 2008
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