Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Who Will Lead Boston's Innovative Nonprofits?

Yesterday, the GreenLight Fund had the pleasure of co-hosting an exciting event with the MBA Program at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and the Boston Foundation. The event, entitled "Private Sector Skills and Nonprofit Board Leadership: Who Will Lead Boston's Innovative Nonprofits?"  brought together nearly 70 participants from the investor, entrepreneur, and nonprofit management communities at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge.  Also present were representatives from the GreenLight Fund’s seven portfolio organizations, including the New Teacher Center, which launched in Boston this fall with GreenLight's support.   

To kick off the morning, Paul Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation gave a keynote that highlighted the critical role of the philanthropic sector as an economic engine for the city, with its numerous hospitals, universities, cultural institutions, social-sector nonprofits and entrepreneurial leaders.   Today, $300 billion philanthropic dollars are given away each year, and 9 out of every 10 American households make an annual charitable contribution - this is higher than the number of Americans that vote!    However, despite the intensive resources poured into it, “the state of philanthropy is underperformance”, and there is a lot of headroom for board members to step in and make an impact. 

Paul Grogan, President and CEO, Boston Foundation

 Following the keynote address, Carole Carlson facilitated a panel discussion with Michael Brown, CEO and Co-Founder of City Year, Jeff Glass, Managing Director at Bain Capital Ventures & Chairperson, BUILD Boston, Joanna Jacobson, Founder & Managing Partner, Strategic Grant Partners and John Simon, Co-Founder & Board Chair of the GreenLight Fund.  

Moderator and Panelists: (From Left) Carole Carlson, John Simon, Michael Brown, Joanna Jacobson and Jeff Glass

A few key lessons and highlights from the panel:
  • Key differentiators between for-profit and nonprofit boards:  Clearly, the biggest difference is the outcome the organization is working toward. For-profit boards focus on maximizing profit while nonprofit boards focus on social impact.  Since there is no one clear measure of social impact, one of the interesting and exciting parts of the nonprofit board is helping the organization think through about how they can measure their impact.  
  • Three things to consider before joining a nonprofit board:
o   Mission: What is the organization's core mission and am I passionate about it?
o   Team:  Do I enjoy interacting with the organization’s staff, leadership team and other board members?
o   Role:  What is my role as a board member?  What am I expected to give (financial commitment, time, professional skills/resources, networks), and what will I get out of the experience?

  • The stage of a nonprofit organization is an important consideration when joining a board:  Just as companies go through phases of start-up, expansion/growth, and scale, so do nonprofits.  For-profit and nonprofits boards operate more similarly within each stage of their lifecycle than – for example - the board of a start-up company and a well-established nonprofit.  
  •   If an executive director tells you board membership “won’t be a lot of work”, walk away.   Nonprofit board membership should be a serious commitment of time and resources, and any leader who tells you otherwise is doing you and the organization a disservice.  Even if you commit to a 2 or 3 year term, it will be a better experience for both the board member and the organization if you approach the role with energy, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. 
Given their particular background and experience in starting and growing for-profit companies, leaders from the entrepreneur and investor community can play a unique and important role as board members of high-impact nonprofit organizations seeking to scale and grow.   We hope the event inspired some of these leaders to consider joining a board focused on social issues – and become the next leaders of Boston’s innovative nonprofits.