Nonprofit Board Membership

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Amy Joyce and Anoop Prakash
Washington Post Staff Writer, Board Member
Monday, November 20, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Amy Joyce and Anoop Prakash, a board member at a local nonprofit organization, were online to answer your questions.

Joyce examined the payoff to executives from helping nonprofits in an article today. She also writes the Life at Work column.

Prakash is vice president of strategic development of LexisNexis and board member of Brainfood, a District-based nonprofit that teaches daily life skills to lower income students.

A transcript follows.

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Amy Joyce: Good morning, folks. Anoop Prakash, a vice president at LexisNexis and board chair for Brainfood, a DC nonprofit that helps teach teens life skills through cooking, is with us and ready to chat with you about all things relating to joining nonprofit boards.

I wrote about Anoop and other area executives who spend a lot of their spare time serving on nonprofit boards around the region in a story in today's Business section. Please check it out (there's a link above).

Lots of questions await, so let's get started.

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Reston, VA: What responsibilities would business people, serving on non profit boards, most like to have?

What would be their primary objectives in serving on such boards?

What would they personally "expect" from the non profit on whose board they sit?

Amy Joyce: Anoop, this one is all you. Can you share your feelings on this?

Anoop Prakash: I think motivations for serving on boards vary from individual to individual -- but in my experience I believe most board members who serve for long periods of time successfully find a nice aligment between the mission of the organization they serve and their ability to contribute meaningfully (that is, the non-profit needs the skills they have). Most people on our board like to contribute in areas they are familiar - strategy, planning, marketing, finance and legal advice seem to be functional areas of interest. Others prefer to volunteer. Expectations also vary -- I think those who primarily expect to gain some notoriety or networking benefits don't last too long, as these are side benefits. If their expectations are more focused on the non-profit mission, they will be more successful, e.g., time spent with non-profit beneficiaries or staff, social aspects of fundraising, etc.

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Rockville, MD: Hi Amy! I enjoyed your article yesterday, and as an IBM employee I have taken advantage of the volunteer database and grant for my volunteer organization. IBM does offer "days of caring" to volunteer in the local community. However, one thing you didn't note was that volunteering on those days, during work hours, reduces our utilization (for those not familiar, utilization means we have to work a certain percentage of time per 2080 hours, usually high enough that we need to work 45 hour weeks to meet our utilization target). So volunteering on these days is a double edged sword--you can do something good, but you'll lose utilization (which is tied to bonus and raise determinations).

A question for Anoop--what's the best way to get on a nonprofit board? There are 2 I'm involved with and I would love to get involved with the board, but there is no mainstream application I can find, and in my experience it's been the people who donate a lot of money who get on the board. I don't have much money to give, only time, but i'd still like to get more involved. Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: It's All in a Day's Volunteer Effort (November 19, 2006)

Amy Joyce: Interesting. I hadn't heard of the utilization issue. (My goodness, IBM loves its jargon, doesn't it? I need a special IBM dictionary to talk to folks there).

Anoop can help you with the board issue, but just in case, here's a link to Greater DC Cares, which has information on the Board Leadership Program: http://www.dc-cares.org

I'd suggest you talk to IBM about perhaps checking the program out and consider sending its employees to the sessions.

Anoop?

Anoop Prakash: Thanks -- I think the best way to approach an organization about joining the board is to contact the Executive Director and/or a board member to discuss the work of the board and current needs. While fundraising is a major focus of any non-profit, all boards need organizational and planning assistance, as well as folks who can represent a diverse voice. Its not always productive to have a board of folks all with similar backgrounds and perspectives. If they aren't receptive, I would look to find another organization with the capacity to support your interest.

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Washington, DC: I'm a middle-aged professional who has worked in the private sector and government all my working life. I want to do something more meaningful with the rest of my working life, and I'd be willing to take a big pay cut. From the people I've talked to so far, however, I get the impression that it's hard to move from the for-profit into the nonprofit sector in mid-life. Nonprofit employers seem reluctant to believe that I really would be willing and able to make this big change, make much less money, and start again from the bottom in a new field. How do you suggest I address this problem?

Amy Joyce: Seems to me that you can address it just like you did here. That's the great thing about cover letters. Also, try some networking. Do you volunteer now? If not, get started and meet people that way. You can then learn how to break into the nonprofit world, and the more people you know in that world, the better chance you have of making it in. Also, check out groups like Greater DC Cares for opportunities. Good luck, and use your experience as an asset. Organizations would be thrilled to have you, I'd think.

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Anywhere, USA: Thank you so much for doing this chat--it's really relevant to my life right now! I work at a non-profit where the CEO is a little "past their prime". They have trouble keeping high level staff (something like 7 VPs in 2 years--and not because they got better offers) and plenty of other lower staff. They are, however, highly regarded nationwide, and it feels like only those who work closely with them really know how they act. The board is obviously familiar with all the resignations and, in some cases, the reasons for them. So we're all sort of wondering: what would it take for them to let the CEO go and start re-building trust in the organization? Is this normal? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Anoop, you joined the Brainfood board when the organization was really struggling. Do you have advice for Anywhere, and can you tell us how the board helped to turn Brainfood around?

Anoop Prakash: Thanks for the question. Unfortunately, I think the situation is "normal" and not only in the non-profit arena. Beyond fundraising and financial responsibility, I think the number one role of the board is to make sure there is strong leadership. My experience at BrainFood confirmed for me that without a strong Executive Director/CEO, the organization cannot grow or shift in the direction the board would suggest. Its squarely up to the board to make a leadership change if necessary.

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Boston, MA: I have been the Director of Communications at a nonprofit for many years and have a comment. The best Board members are the ones who give great advice and then step back and let the organization deal with the work. The most difficult Board members are those who want to be added to the already lengthy approval process for anything. Because these Board members work fulltime, getting approval or comments can take weeks and often results in holding up important projects. In other words, advise don't manage! Thanks

Anoop Prakash: Great advice. I agree the board can be a bottleneck, but I will say communication should still be constant and in both directions to have the most effective working relationship!

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Baltimore, MD: Thanks for this great article. In Baltimore we have a nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to recruit and train corporate execs, and place them on nonprofits that need board members. It is great for the individuals, great for the businesses, and perfect for the nonprofits.

I serve on a board that this nonprofit helped to find new board members. We were able to connect with talent and communities that were not in our circles.

I'm not sure if this exists anywhere else, but it is a tremendous asset to our nonprofit community. Business Volunteers Unlimited Maryland is their name.

washingtonpost.com: Personal Payoff

Amy Joyce: That's great. It sounds like the same thing Greater DC Cares does with its Board Leadership program. They train then place executives who have been through the training on boards that need members.

Congrats on your service.

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Washington, DC: Nice piece today. I thought it missed one element, though. Service on a nonprofit board is also an excellent way for young professionals to develop skills, learn about nonprofit management, and expand their network.

I'm still fairly early in my career, but I've already served three years on the board of a small nonprofit, including one year as president. It was an excellent career development experience for me. In my particular case, it gave me supervisory experience I was not getting in my day job.

So...no question...Just wanted to add that comment and maybe ask to consider these experiences for future stories.

Amy Joyce: You're right, it can be an excellent way for young professionals to develop skills as well. And young professionals probably bring many different things to the table that others can't.

However, many nonprofits are looking for people with a bit more experience because they (as the story mentioned) desperately need them and need those skills and experience.

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Pittsburgh, PA: Mr. Prakash, how did you choose Brainfood as a not for profit organization to work with or were you apporached by a staff or board member?

Anoop Prakash: I had the good fortune of meeting the Executive Director, Paul Dahm, at a Board Leadership Training Course hosted by Greater DC Cares (I believe Amy published the link in another post). My interest was to find a board that supported teenage students in my area, and both the organizational fit and the rapport I developed with Paul made it a good fit. I further confirmed my interest after meeting some of the board members, who were very passionate and capable. Its important to do your due diligence so you don't make a commitment you will not be happy with down the road.

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Arlington, Virginia: What are some good ways to recruit board members with corporate experience?

Anoop Prakash: This is a great question, and a challenge we face. I think the absolute best way is to have your current board members tap into their networks. Nothing is more trustworthy than a friend/acquaintance encouraging you to look into an opportunity like board service. If that is not an option, I have found two other avenues that can produce results. First, most corporations have established a community service liaison -- usually out of their marketing or HR functions. They might like to publish opportunities to their employees. Secondly, organizations like the United Way and Greater DC Cares have established board-matching programs, where they proactively try to match up folks with opportunities.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Anoop,

I would like to know more about Brain food.

I am a bridal/fashion designer and would like to contribute to the students in DC.

I admire your contributions and would love to be a part of this great cause.

Thank you,

Ramya.

Anoop Prakash: Thanks Ramya, we'll be sure to get in touch with you!

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Washington, DC: Hi Amy, Paul Dahm here. I would like to give some well-deserved credit to Greater DC Cares for their efforts in training folks to serve on boards. Not only did we find Anoop through them, but also two other members of Brainfood's board. One of the challenges to forming positive board relationships is to manage expectations properly. The DC Cares program creates a pool of prospective board members that are educated as to what their responsibilities will be and what will be expected of them.

Amy Joyce: Very true. DC Cares has a great relationship with large and small employers in the area who then send their employees to these training sessions. That's how Paul, the executive director of Brainfood, found three board members and will hopefully find more. DC Cares has matched executives with nonprofits on many boards throughout the region, placing people who may not have otherwise considered the match.

As it says in the story: In the seven years it has been in existence, the Greater DC Cares Board Leadership Program has trained 500 local executives from nearly 100 companies. About 250 of them have joined 137 nonprofits.

Thanks for writing in Paul. Good luck with Brainfood.

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Washington, D.C.: Amy, this is for the gentleman who was trying to make the shift from for-profit to non-profit mid-life. From my experience, most management positions in non-profits are found via networking rather than job postings. So to reaffirm what you said earlier, get out there and get to know people! Find a non-profit whose mission aligns with your personal values and start volunteering for them; get on their listserves; if you can afford it, go to their annual dinner and chat with the current Board as well as the Executive Director and staff, you never know who may have the most insight!

Amy Joyce: Thanks, DC. I figured more of you would have advice. It's a very nonprofit-y region!

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Detroit, MI: I currently serve on 2 non-profit boards. I'm president of one of the boards. One of my biggest dilemmas is how to motivate greater organizational structure without over reaching?

Anoop Prakash: This is a great challenge of any growing organization, especially non-profits that don't naturally lend themselves to structure due to the volunteer nature of participation. My suggestion is to go slow and steady, and pay extra attention to personalities involved. In my experience, losing a volunteer or board member in a non-profit tends to be much harder to replace than if you lost an employee in a company (where there are well established recruiting/hiring procedures to quickly find more). Now there also may be folks who will always resist structure, but if the organization needs structure to move to the next level, sometimes its better to part ways. Just make sure the people doing the hard work and heavy lifting don't get distracted/discouraged by the creation of structure -- they are your most important internal consitituents.

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Washington, DC: When I worked at a non-profit I put in 9 hour days and worked like a dog for a cause only to see my supervisors snag the tickets to benefits, the white house, congressional events, etc. It came crashing down when our director announced there would be no bonuses because we were working for a cause and that money belonged to that cause. I couldn't make a dent in my Xmas bills without that bonus. THEY were working for the cause, I had bills to pay. I went into private industry and my $32k salary was upped to $52k in 12 months and upped to $100k in 3 years. Is that common?

Anoop Prakash: I think this is all too common and unfortunate, but hopefully changing. There are foundations like the Meyer Foundation paying extra attention to the issues of Non-Profit leaders and the financial sacrifices being made. They, along with some partner organizations, published a study called "Dare to Lead" which surveyed and researched the stresses on non-profit leaders, including financial benchmarks, and is a great resouce to any board leaders and executive directors that want to proactively change the dynamic and retain talented leadership.

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Reston, VA: From your experience, do you find that non profits are upfront about defining responsibilities of board members, especially in regard to the vital importance of "giving or getting" philanthropic assistance?

Anoop Prakash: I think all non-profits could do a better job in laying out the responsibilities of board members, especially when it comes to financial contribution. The culture of the organization sometimes dictates the structure (or lack thereof). But, there is nothing more disappointing for both parties when false expectations have been set by either side. Fundraising goals and expectations for personal contributions should be up front. Its something to think about for those wanting to become board members -- if you can't dig into your own pocket to support the organization, how could you be effective in asking others to do the same?

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Washington, DC: Anyone interested in learning more about Brainfood can call 202-667-5515 or email Paul Dahm at paul@brain-food.org. Website is www.brain-food.org

Amy Joyce: Free shout out for Brainfood here. As the story mentioned, they just opened their second location, this one near Chinatown.

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Arlington, Virginia: I am on a nonprofit board that is thinking about setting up an advisory board. Can you touch on the advantages of an advisory board and how to go about setting one up?

Anoop Prakash: I think an advisory board can be great if they are actively focused on a single area, say fundraising, or bringing credibility to your mission. I think the downside risks to consider are: 1) Will the people on the board be hard to manage/get a hold of during the year? 2) How busy are they and will they be reliable? 3) What do they expect in return? and 4) Do you have the time to manage them/the process? Will this time takeaway from other activities?

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Austin, Texas: I have been invited to join a nonprofit board that is in my area of expertise but not in my city. I could maybe fly there 2x a year for meetings, tops. Do you think this would be workable or is it best I seek a local opportunity?

Amy Joyce: Have you asked the nonprofit if they think that would be enough time? I think some members of Brainfood's board spend a few meetings a year on conference call if they are traveling, so that's an option too.

Anoop, thoughts?

Anoop Prakash: I think its an option. The key metric for you should really be your ability to contribute meaningfully to the mission and growth of the organization. If its lending your expertise, perhaps you can write papers and/or bring attention to the organization, neither of which is location dependent. However, if they expect you to work on local fundraising, and increase visibility locally, then it may be a challenge. You may also want to have more social interaction with the board and its "customers", and that may also be challenging from afar.

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Reston, VA: I have been a non profit executive for many years. One major challenge to the institution of having board members is not having them get involved in the day to day operations of the institution but having them focus long range goals and objectives. Do you agree to advising prospective board members to not getting involved with operational responsibilities?

Anoop Prakash: I would agree if you feel you have day-to-day activities covered by staff or volunteers. In a small organization like ours, I know that our Exec Dtr can lean on us sometimes for some quick work that needs to get done. I think you are correct in that, if appropriately staffed and in an ideal model, the board should be focused on long-term planning and growth.

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Millersville, Maryland: How can we in the non-profit community get others to understand (and support) that our work is just as 'valuable' as those in the profit sector? All too often I hear, "well you're in this business to make a difference...not really for the money."

I understand that many non-profits-staff and volunteer boards, operate in less than a proper 'business model' and we can sometimes be our own worst critic. It seems that we either have 'shinning stars of excellence' or bad examples to follow and the public does not really know or understand the difference.

Anoop Prakash: Thanks for the question. I think there are challenges to public perception, but the perceptions seem to be slowly shifting. Many newer foundations have become much more professional in their management outlook and have begun to publish resources and support a better view of non-profits. There is a great feature on Teach for America in a recent Fortune Magazine, that talks to how corporates are following their lead in how to recruit from college campuses, and the Meyer Foundation, Robin Hood Foundation and Gates Foundation are examples of large organizations that have lifted the perception (and level of management skill).

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Reston, VA: Advisory boards are often formed to fund raise. Attracting good volunteers often requires giving them more responsibility. The best fund raisers are board members, not advisory committee members.

Anoop Prakash: I agree.

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Washington, D.C.: I wonder if you could comment on the double-standard between the senior leaders of non-profits and the rank and file workers. The senior executives usually make pretty hefty salaries (just see today's Chronicle of Higher Education for some of them) and the argument is made that they need to be competitive with the private sector.

But those of us at lower rungs are told that we're paid less because our work is meaningful. Why does the same not apply to senior leaders? And why are the rest of the professional staff not valued in the same way?

While I have no objection to people making reasonable salaries at the senior levels of non-profits, it seems crazy to pay $500K or $1M to lead an organization that's supposed to be doing good.

Anoop Prakash: I think you are hitting on a trend that seems to be following on the heels of "CEO pay" in the corporate sector as well. Boards tend to be distant from the operations of their organizations, and the CEO is the face of the organization, and in some cases the person they are placing their confidence in to save, grow or change the organization. An interesting book was published by Prof Khurana from Harvard Business School about the fallacy of high-paid, celebrity CEOs, and that implies the real work is done at the middle tier and below in any organization.

But the reality is this is also the "market for talent" at work -- the more experience someone has, the more valuable they might be, and other organizations will pay more to recruit them (we see it in sports everyday).

The end-result should be more opportunities for anyone that gains valuable experience and rises up the ranks, and as these organizations compete for middle management talent, salaries should increase for these employees also as they have in the private sector.

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Washington DC: I would like to hear some advice on how to ask for a raise at a non-profit employer and how one properly evaluates adequate compensation in the non-profit arena. I recently made the move from for-profit to non-profit (taking a big pay cut in the process) and I need advice on how evaluations & raise requests work in this new field. Thanks.

Anoop Prakash: This process is highly dependent on the organization, just as it is in the private sector. I would suggest looking at benchmarks on non-profit salaries in places like Meyer Foundation or Bridgestar.org, and even going so far as to find similar organizations and ask around. Hopefully, your non-profit board would review salaries and/or your CEO/Exec Dtr would hold some sort of performance review for you. Again, the structure varies dramatically from org to org. I commend you on your move to the non-profit sector.

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Fairfax, VA: Are board members required to carry director's insurance?

Anoop Prakash: I am not an attorney, but most organizations do carry "D&O" insurance (Directors & Officers) that covers the members against many liabilities to serving the organization.

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Washington, DC: What is your advice for growing a "young" board? What I mean is that our board is composed of members who are on a board for the first time, most of the institutional knowledge went out the door with the past two boards. How can we develop such a board?

Amy Joyce: One option is to talk to Greater DC Cares about this. They may have advice or resources for you.

Anoop? Should they simply get someone with more experience to sit on the board and help guide the younger members?

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McLean, Va: The Washington DC poster stated a reference to "serving" on a board.... He may be misinformed. Board members are usually compensated to my knowledge.

Anoop Prakash: Actually, most non-profit board positions are unpaid. I am not paid for my service. Corporate boards typically do compensate.

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Brookevile, Maryland: The people profiled in today's article are all professionals with large companies, institutions much more capable financially and administratively of supporting employees' volunteer roles than smaller companies. How about a little credit to the folks from micro- and small businesses who also give their time, energy and skill sets, sometimes at a higher cost?

At AOL and LexisNexis, someone else will cover a phone call or run interference on an emergency while a staff member is working with a non-profit. Their salary is likely not to be affected by their absence from work for charitable efforts. At my very small family-owned business, if the phone rings while I'm at a board meeting or other activity, the caller gets voice mail. My hourly rate takes a hit if I'm not working in the office. If there's an emergency, it doesn't get handled until I'm back in the office. Yes, it has inconvenienced me and my clients, and certainly cost my bottom line, but the rewards have been worth it. I have no problem looking myself in the mirror and know that others have benefited from my work.

I have served for three years as a board member of the Maryland Coalition of Families for Children's Mental Health and was just elected president earlier this month. In addition to the time and energy expended as a Coalition board member, our graphic design firm has donated thousands of hours of professional expertise, time and energy to area non-profits, including historic preservation organizations, an upstart umbrella non-profit serving social service needs, mental health and homeless organizations and many, many more.

I appreciate the articles in yesterday's and today's paper focusing on the nurturing of non-profits. But I would also appreciate a more balanced view of the personnel who comprise board membership.

Amy Joyce: There is a wide range of people on boards coming from a wide range of corporate backgrounds. It can, of course, be difficult for all. But no matter what, you're doing good work. Thanks for that.

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Anoop Prakash: On the question of growing a "young board," I think you have a great opportunity. Institutional knowledge sometimes implies "doing things the old way." I would imagine you can glean the best of the institutional knowledge and present that to your new board, and begin down a new path. An important first step in unifying any board, young or old, is making sure everyone is aligned with a agreed upon strategy, objectives for the board, overall growth objectives for the organization in the year ahead, everyone's roles & responsibilities and how you will measure success. Good luck!

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Thanks for joining us today. Special thanks to Anoop for taking time out of his day to talk about serving on a nonprofit board.

Enjoy your week, all. Don't forget to join me again tomorrow, same time, same place, to discuss your life at work.

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