Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2007Kellogg School of Management
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  Professor Anne Cohn Donnelly
  Professor Anne Cohn Donnelly  Photo © Evanston Photographic

Getting on board

Hands-on governance program puts students on nonprofit boards for action learning that strengthens the community

By Rebecca Lindell

The sheaf of papers fell to the table with a thud. Inside were reams of financial data, clues to the fiscal health of a Chicago nonprofit organization.

The nonprofit's board members rifled distractedly through the papers. The financial report, such as it was, was "so obtuse, no one would have understood it," remembers Kellogg School Professor Anne Cohn Donnelly.

Sitting at the table that evening was a student in the Kellogg School's Nonprofit Board Fellows program. "I can produce a report that will make your financial issues crystal clear," she said, ensuring that the next meeting was a time for making decisions rather than shuffling paper.

Her contribution is one of many that Kellogg students have made recently to the boards of Chicago-area nonprofits. Other students have created marketing plans, built Web sites and analyzed data for nonprofits that otherwise could not afford such expertise. The students, in turn, have gained knowledge and experience as nonvoting members of the nonprofits' boards.

The give-and-take is at the heart of what has become one of the hottest classes in the Kellogg curriculum. The Nonprofit Board Fellows program has earned raves from Chicago nonprofit leaders, who tout the energy and enthusiasm that Kellogg students bring to their boards. The students, meanwhile, have embraced the opportunity to gain board experience prior to graduation.

See the related article: Grads gain nonprofit leadership experience through Beacon Capital initiative

"It's been amazing," says Bao Phan '07, a second-year student serving her fellowship on the board of The Cradle, an Evanston-based adoption agency. Phan says she has learned much about the intangibles of board service: how relationships among board members affect decision making, and how a good executive director balances board demands with staff needs.

"I'm learning how important it is to be passionate about an organization's mission," Phan adds. "I'd never imagined that adoption would be one of my interests, but this experience has gotten me so engaged."

Founded in 2003, this student-run initiative has grown at an exponential pace. The first year it was offered, the program placed three students on local nonprofit boards. This year, the program attracted more than 160 applicants — a quarter of the first-year class — for 45 slots.

"There's a growing recognition that serving on a board is a critical part of a corporate leader's life," Donnelly says. "I think that brings a lot of people into the program, people who may never have planned to work in a nonprofit, but who see service on a nonprofit board as a part of their career."

That recognition is spreading among business students. When the Kellogg School rolled out the program four years ago, it was one of the first to involve students on nonprofit boards. Now, about a dozen schools offer similar programs.

The Kellogg initiative is unusual, however, in that it includes a rigorous classroom component. Before serving their fellowships, students must complete an academic course on nonprofit board governance. Then, while serving their fellowships, they continue to study board issues in a year-long advanced course. They also participate in discussion groups throughout the fellowship, sharing insights and challenges.

"I'm not only learning about my nonprofit, I'm learning about 10 or 15 others, which enriches my experience even more," Phan says. 

Donnelly believes the classroom lays the groundwork for a better board experience. Jane Mentzinger, executive director of Chicago Communities In Schools, agrees. "They have a deeper level of understanding, and it's apparent in the questions they ask," she says. "They already seem to understand the nuances of how a nonprofit board works."

Mentzinger's organization, which helps bring social services to children in Chicago public schools, has hosted Kellogg fellows for the past three years. Each fellow, she says, has left a mark on the organization. One studied the dynamics of fundraising; another focused on communications. A third used computer modeling to analyze data central to the organization's mission.

"The research was much more in-depth than we ever would have been able to do on our own," Mentzinger says. "I'd never had the access to that; we don't have the staff or the resources. You're always wondering in social services how you measure your impact and results. Thanks to this program, we were able to get some answers."

The students have their questions answered as well. Anita Barci '07 is serving her fellowship with the Girl Scouts of Chicago. "I'm seeing how important it is for an organization to have a good network of people to call on when it needs help," she says. "And I'm learning how important it is to be passionate about the cause. It's so much easier to get support, for example, when you can tell great stories about how scouting has changed a girl's life and how those dollars will make an impact."

Prior to her board fellowship, Barci assumed it would be years before she would serve on a nonprofit board. "Now I'm realizing it's something I can do sooner rather than later," she says.

Barci will be one of many Kellogg graduates to bring their knowledge into the nonprofit world.

"These students will be leaders — CEOs and vice presidents of major companies," Mentzinger says. "We can learn from them, and we can teach them about nonprofits and how they are run. By sharing their experience and knowledge, we'll have stronger boards and stronger nonprofits — and a better society in the long run."

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