Business people and nonprofit leaders participated this week at a forum convened in Washington, D.C. by leading international law firm Clifford Chance. The event explored ways to advance global, national, and regional agendas in education, social justice, healthcare, and economic development. “We have always had a strong interest in corporate social responsibility, as evidenced by our more than 33,000 hours of pro bono and public service work in the US last year,” said David DiBari, Office Managing Partner. “We now have close to 40 partners serving on nonprofit boards supported by firm resources. This leadership initiative is a key element of our corporate social responsibility goals.”
Business leaders agreed that nonprofit board service provides a unique opportunity for personal and professional development. “I was invited onto the board of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) to contribute expertise and make introductions to help advance the organization, and I am glad to do that because I believe in CSH’s important work, but I am also learning a great deal through the experience,” shared Douglas Weill, Managing Director of Credit Suisse, based in New York. Weill is Co-Head of the Real Estate Investments Group in Alternative Investments.
Stephen Nickelsburg, a Partner at Clifford Chance who serves on the board of Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), agreed with Weill. “In the past year, NVFS has been involved in a merger as well as developing innovative revenue strategies. I am glad that the firm and I can be useful to such an outstanding organization, but this is also a unique and valuable experience for me to be part of the governing process.”
Panelists and participants shared insights from a variety of perspectives.
Advice to business people in choosing nonprofit boards is to join boards where:
- you can add value in addition to making financial contributions – especially by engaging in governing discussions and decisions about the future of the organization and core strategies;
- the board is functioning well and ready to engage with new members;
- there is effective CEO and board leadership; and
- the mission is personally meaningful.
Advice to people after you join a board, if you want to be useful to the organization, develop yourself, and have a rewarding experience:
- Do more than just attend the four board meetings per year: Learn about the organization, and figure out how to add value.
- Participate on committees; that’s often where board members can really be useful.
- Help articulate the case for the organization, sometimes even finding a way to boil down complex issues into an “elevator speech;” or to make the case by showing the negative consequences of not addressing the problems that the organization remedies – such as hunger, or homelessness, or loss of jobs.
Nonprofit CEOs who shared their perspectives about developments in nonprofit board governance included Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community Change, and Mike Curtin, CEO, DC Central Kitchen. A few of the nonprofit leaders who participated included Jane Lang, Founder and Chair of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Debbie Hance, Treasurer, Northern Virginia Family Service, and Uma Lele, Ph.D., Board Member, EngenderHealth, where Clifford Chance partner Wendy Wysong serves on the Board.