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Opportunities and Challenges to Board Membership: A Discussion with Mary Chapin at National Student Clearinghouse

Posted in Career

Guest blogger: Ilona Korzha is counsel at Sprint Corporation. She is also co-chair of the ACC Career Development Committee. She can be reached at ilona.korzha@sprint.com or ilonakorzha@yahoo.com. The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the author and should not be construed to be the views or opinions of Sprint Corporation.

Probably one of the more powerful tools for one’s career advancement is serving on a board of a nonprofit organization. Many are simply unaware of its importance. I spoke with Mary Chapin, Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at National Student Clearinghouse, about the opportunities and obstacles to board membership, how to identify an organization to serve for, and how to make the most of the opportunity.

Mary Chapin National Student Clearinghouse

Mary Chapin
National Student Clearinghouse

Mary, you have served on a number of boards and in various capacities. What are some of the reasons for joining a board of directors or trustees?

Serving on a nonprofit board provides not only an opportunity to exercise skills you currently possess, but also the ability to develop new skills to use in your current position and add to your resume.

Board experience also offers new perspectives outside the silo of your company and industry. Collaboration with talented professionals from different backgrounds can allow you to build external awareness and endorsements for the nonprofit, as well as enhance your personal brand. It also allows you to expand your business acumen in areas of corporate finances, strategic planning, revenue generation, communications, and public relations. For many — including myself — it is a meaningful and rewarding way to make a difference in the community.

How does someone decide which organization to serve for?

Choose a nonprofit that inspires you or supports a cause you are passionate about. The board’s mission should reflect your values and make you feel enthusiastic about your service. Most nonprofits look for board members with specific skills, so consider the needs of the organization — whether you have those desired skills and how you can contribute to the board.

Some nonprofits also seek board members with connections for purposes of obtaining corporate donors and support from community leaders and government officials. Determine whether the fundraising commitment required of most board members is within your personal and professional comfort zone.

What are the biggest obstacles to joining a board?

Time commitment for board meetings, committee meetings, fundraising, and other events tied to promoting the nonprofit’s mission are some of the main challenges. As in-house attorneys, we juggle demanding work schedules and time for board service may be a challenge to incorporate into our schedules outside of work. Another challenge might be the financial and fundraising commitment of a board member.

Notwithstanding meaningful networking and use of online resources, board seats may not be open or are being filled by individuals that fulfill a specific need. In some cases — like finding a job — it may be more about whom you know. So, be persistent in your efforts to communicate your interest to overcome this challenge.

What is the best way to get onto a nonprofit board?

Check with your professional network, such as LinkedIn connections, to ascertain whether someone has a connection with a board member or executive leadership of the nonprofit you have identified. Use the connection to initiate a dialogue and inquire about joining the board.

If there is no connection, introduce yourself and share your interest in joining the nonprofit’s board. If you prefer a less direct approach, volunteer with the organization to gain access and inquire about potential board opportunities.

Ilona Korzha Sprint Corporation

Ilona Korzha
Sprint Corporation

Are there any resources that could be useful in looking for the open position?

Online resources that may be useful for identifying an opening on a board include Idealist, LinkedIn, boardnetUSA, VolunteerMatch, and Bridgespan Group. Each of these resources contain postings about open board of director positions.

Are there any questions you recommend asking the organization before joining the board?

It is important to conduct your due diligence to learn as much as you can about the organization. Here are a few important areas to garner insight when seeking to join a board of directors:

  • Research its website and use social media to search for published information.
  • Inquire about nature of any pending or past litigation against the organization.
  • Access its recent 990 tax filings and other information through Guidestar.
  • Review governance policies — particularly conflicts of interest. Determine whether there is adequate liability insurance to protect through D&O coverage and any expectation for you to give legal advice in this role. Keep in mind that D&O insurance will protect you when acting as a board member, but not when rendering professional advice to the organization as an attorney.
  • Determine the attendance expectations at scheduled board meetings, committee meetings, and fundraising/charity events.
  • Assess the organization’s financial stability and inquire about frequency and type of financial reporting to the board.

Confirm your expected annual financial contribution, what fundraising goals you have to meet and other contributions, such as buying tickets or tables at fundraising events.

We talked about all the great reasons for serving on the board. Is there a downside of joining one?

The downside of serving on a board is going to be different for each individual, but in most cases, it is time, financial, and fundraising commitments. However, these issues are outweighed by the substantial benefits — building practical skills, expanding your network, achieving professional growth and making a difference in the community.

What are the benefits of a nonprofit having an in-house attorney on its board?

In-house counsel have valuable advisory experience and are trained to assist their clients with understanding and evaluating choices, as well as advocating on issues that are paramount to the company and its stakeholders. In-house counsel can use these skills to help the organization analyze risks strategically, constructively solve problems, and grow the organization’s value proposition. These skills are routinely used in the role of an in-house counsel, but can be more powerfully used in a boardroom.

By using this experience, they can enable their business clients to thwart and find innovative solutions to global legal and business problems.