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The joys and challenges of volunteer board service

When you think about volunteering, what comes to mind? Chances are it’s direct service-delivering meals, tutoring a child, cleaning up a park or river. The nonprofit agencies that do these good deeds, and others, also rely on a crucial behind-the-scenes volunteer: the board member.

Board members are the ultimate in volunteer leadership. What does it take to be on a nonprofit board? What should you know before you take the leap to volunteer to serve on one? MWP talked to experts and volunteers in this exploration of the realities, rewards and challenges of this kind of “giving back.”

New horizons
Over the decades, Jae Asancheyev has volunteered with the schools, soccer club, and La Leche League. But in recent years, she’s found meaning and purpose as a board member, and current president, of the Older Women’s League-Minnesota (OWL).

About six years ago, Asancheyev, whose work includes small business bookkeeping and general business analysis, was recruited to do some marketing for OWL events. “I just kind of stayed on,” she said. “I became fascinated by these women.”

Board models
One of the most important things to know about an organization’s board is the type of board it is. Smaller and volunteer-run organizations typically use the working board model; board members often take on duties that staff in a larger organization would handle. OWL’s is a working board. Policy or policy/governance boards, which is the model often used by larger organizations such as the YWCA, set the organization’s mission/vision and policies. Board members of all types of boards are generally intimately involved in fundraising.

She recalled drafting a brochure for an OWL workshop, describing the event as designed to give older women a feeling of personal financial security.

Want to join a board?
If you are interested in …

• Fine-tuning your leadership skills
• Opportunities to network with interesting people
• Making decisions that affect your community
• Sharing your skills, experience, and ideas
• Giving back to the community
• Influencing the $21.6 billion that nonprofits invest in our communities annually

… check out the YWCA of Minneapolis’ Leadership Registry program. Its goal is increasing the number of women and people of color on nonprofit and government boards in the Twin Cities so that boards reflect the populations that they serve. Participants complete an application, send in their resume and conduct a phone interview with St. Paul-based MAP for Nonprofits. They are then offered, free of charge, MAP’s “Board Boot Camp” training.

The YWCA also recruits nonprofit and government boards that want to diversify. Each board is asked to select an ally for new members and attend a YWCA Unlearning Racism Workshop before board members are placed. When a board has an opening, MAP finds candidates whose profiles fit the organization’s needs.

Contact: YWCA of Minneapolis, www.ywcampls.org/community-programs/registry/index.asp.

The board looked over the draft. “Kay Taylor kind of growled,” Asancheyev recalled with a smile, “and said, ‘Scratch “feeling”-we want the real thing!'” Taylor, a longtime feminist Republican activist and OWL board member, died in 2006 at age 79.

As OWL’s president, Asancheyev figures she puts in the equivalent of one full day each week on board duties, “and I’m not the only one by far.” She does everything from helping with mailings and newsletters to running meetings and helping to organize the three or four workshops that OWL stages each year on such issues as healthcare, personal economic security and quality of life concerns for older women.

Asancheyev said her affiliation with OWL, which is run by a 12-member board, “opened up new horizons for me.” In particular, she cited the group’s work on “breaking the stereotype of older women as poor and pitiful.”

“I had that stereotype too, like lots of people,” said Asancheyev, who is 60. “And then I walked into this group of women-vibrant, retired professionals-who are very focused and smart.”

Now, she finds meaning in combating stereotypes she once believed, and helping women, both young and old, improve their quality of life. She noted that one member speaks often to college classes, and “some of the young women have never heard of IRAs … which is kind of scary, since older women’s income is half of older men’s.”

Joining the Y team
Angela Taylor, vice-president of business operations for the Minnesota Lynx basketball team, shares Asancheyev’s esteem for her board colleagues, lauding the “amazing individuals” she’s worked with since joining the YWCA of Minneapolis board about a year ago.

In contrast to the small and relatively young OWL, which was founded in 1981 and has no paid staff, the YWCA is the oldest and largest multicultural women’s organization in the world. The YWCA of Minneapolis, which in FY2006 had nearly $14 million in public support and revenues and boasted nearly $27 million in assets, is led by a 31-member, all-women board of directors who set the organization’s policy and direction.

Taylor said the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women and girls “resonated with me,” adding, “As a Lynx organization leader and African-American woman, I focus on these also.” Her board membership grew out of discussions about partnerships between the Y and the Lynx.

Asked about the time commitment, Taylor replied, “I don’t even keep track. … I’m just excited to be part of it.” She said she “absolutely” plans to stay involved, whether as a board member, volunteer or on committees (service on YWCA committees is also open to non-board members, and is sometimes a prelude to board membership).

Challenges
Asancheyev noted that her career allows flexibility for her OWL service. Not everyone has that flexibility-which can make it tough for organizations that rely on working boards to recruit and retain members. She cited a woman who’s served on OWL’s board since 1981, but can no longer attend regular meetings because the new meeting time conflicts with her work hours. She is 86 years old.

Bonnie Watkins knows her way around boards. The executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium has been director of four different nonprofits and board member of five, and has seen many-if not all-of the challenges that can bedevil nonprofit boards. One of the major struggles can be finding the right board members. In politics, it’s an old saw that men decide on their own to seek office, but women often must be asked. When it comes to board service, that may be true as well.

Even when women are asked, they don’t always say yes. “Women are so freakin’ busy, and asking someone to serve is hard,” Watkins noted. “It’s like trying to get a teenager to babysit-it’s not clear there’s enough in it for them.”

Growing leaders
Younger women, who may have less experience and fewer contacts, don’t always recognize their leadership potential. Sally Kenney, who directs the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, has helped many of them discover it.

Kenney arranges stints on boards of nonprofit women’s organizations for her female students. She noted that some nonprofits “see people as suitable for boards because they’re affluent-yet they also lament that young women aren’t involved.” Her students may not have much money, she said, “but they have a lot to offer.”

One thing they can offer organizations is a generational reality check. “They can help by saying things like, ‘If you want young women to attend your event, you can’t charge $125,'” Kenney said. “How about a ‘Pay your Age’ policy?”

The students, for their part, gain confidence and pride in their ability to contribute. Kenney cited a young woman placed on the board of an organization which, Kenney said, “had a public policy program that was stagnant” at the time. The student joined the relevant committee, and rejuvenated its efforts to the point where “they wound up asking her to chair it.”

While not always achieved, board diversity is a goal of most organizations-in terms of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, income and other factors.

“The most powerful boards bring together diverse people,” said Angela Taylor, noting that while the YWCA board is not diverse in terms of gender, its members come from a variety of sectors-business, government, law, health care, sports. While board service can be a natural extension of one’s “regular job,” it can also be a refreshing change of pace-or, sometimes, both.

Ann Simonds, president of baking products for General Mills, was the mother of two toddlers and running the Cheerios operation when she joined the board of the Minnesota Children’s Museum in 2002. “It was a perfect fit,” she said, “a wonderful opportunity to learn, both as a parent and as a professional.”

Simonds cited meetings in which Museum staff “brought new exhibits to life” for board members, inspiring her both as a part of the organization and as a parent.

She concluded that a nonprofit board “can be a safe place to learn and grow skills you need for your core job-and also a chance to totally get out of your core job.”

Rewards and risks
Yet rewarding as it is, nonprofit board service isn’t without risks. According to Christine Durand of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, board members are “financially responsible” for the organization. “There is a risk” to the pocketbooks of board members individually and collectively, she said, if an organization runs into financial problems-though whether they would actually be held liable for an agency’s debts would depend on the circumstances (owing money to the IRS would be among the more likely scenarios). Many boards cover this liability through an O&D (Officers and Directors) insurance policy.

Along with responsibility for a nonprofit’s financial health, Durand said, boards have a “strategic responsibility” to ensure the organization is fulfilling its mission. She called boards “essential to any organization-they’re there to provide the viewpoint of the community, make sure the organization is responsive to the community.”

Bonnie Watkins noted that nonprofit boards can be “annoying, distracting, micro-managing, neglectful, inefficient, and there is always at least one major personality clash.” But, she’s quick to add, they’re also “incredibly valuable and indispensable far beyond providing the minimum legal oversight required.”

Clearly, the women we spoke with found the risks of nonprofit board service small compared with the rewards-the chance to learn new things, develop leadership skills, contribute to a cause and forge meaningful relationships.

“It’s an excellent way to come together over time with talented and interesting people you’d never otherwise meet,” concluded Jae Asancheyev, “and work toward something larger than ourselves.”


Before you say yes …
What should you do if approached to serve on a nonprofit board? What should you consider before making a decision that will affect your finances, time and perhaps even reputation?

Jill and Daniel Welytok, authors of “Nonprofit Law & Governance for Dummies,” suggest asking the following questions:

Who’s on the board and how did they get there?
Find out, tactfully, about the skills and experience of current board members. Are they friends of the CEO? Is there a nominating committee that tries to balance the skills board members bring to the table? Do board members have to be elected or approved by the organization’s membership?

How long do board members serve?
Some boards have very long terms, such as five years. Can you be sure you’ll be able to serve that long? If the term is short, say a year or two, will you have time to make a difference?

What committees does the board have?
Common ones include fundraising, PR, nominating and audit committees. Make sure you’ll be assigned to the committee/s that most interest you and suit your skills.

Can you see the financials?
A nonprofit’s tax return-called the 990-must be available to the public. Small nonprofits don’t have to file a 990, but should have some kind of accounting system they can offer for your inspection. If an organization balks at your request to see financial info, consider that a red flag.

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