March 20, 2018; Comstock’s

At the University of California, Davis’s business school, the Women in Leadership Club began by hosting discussion groups and happy hours, and helping link students with mentors. But, as Torey Van Oot notes in Comstock’s, former club president Hilary Bekmann and her MBA colleagues had another idea. “I wanted to provide some marketable skills to the women within the program and also really provide those leadership opportunities,” recalls Bekmann, who now works as the associate director of sustainability in the University of California president’s office.

To get started, “Bekmann and other club members gauged interest among area nonprofits and secured $10,000 in seed funding from the school to form what they called their Board Fellowship Program.” The idea, Van Oot writes, is that “Students would gain valuable leadership and management insights, and the nonprofit boards would get new blood without having to search for and vet applicants themselves.” Of course, this requires careful vetting and training. For example, in 2015, the club had 19 students trained to be on a nonprofit board. Of these 19, four were selected by nonprofits to serve a stint on their boards. By year two, the number that were trained, vetted, and placed in nonprofits doubled to eight. “Every nonprofit I reached out to was keen on the idea,” Bekmann recalls. “It sort of sold itself.”

The benefits for both the nonprofits and the students reportedly have been significant. For instance, at the Sacramento-based domestic violence support nonprofit WEAVE (Women Escaping a Violent Environment), Van Oot explains,

CEO Beth Hassett worried there wasn’t a clear enough connection in the messaging between the nonprofit organization’s mission and the clothing stores that helped fuel its operations. WEAVE’s Retail Advisory Board developed a new strategy, recommending the creation of a social media style guide and a targeted Instagram campaign featuring styled outfits available at the store.

One driving force behind the changes was an unconventional source—not a longtime board member, or even a full-time one. It was Kelly Gillett, an MBA student on loan to WEAVE.

“Having Kelly there made a big difference,” Hassett says. “We’d had a lot of the same people on [the committee] for a while. Bringing her new energy and new blood to the organization was really helpful. She brought that younger shopper voice to the table.”

WEAVE’s situation is not unique, notes Van Oot. “Many nonprofits find themselves seeking new, young members to bring fresh perspectives to their organizations—contributing to avid interest in the UC Davis program.” The students also benefit from the partnership. “Gillett,” Van Oot points out, “got a front-row seat to the inner-workings of a board, gaining experience and skills that she’ll carry into her career in business.”

Now, we get to the best aspect of the program. As Van Oot also points out, while young people “volunteer and donate to charitable causes in high numbers, it’s less common to see them pursuing seats on the boards that make key strategic decisions for the future.” According to BoardSource’s latest Leading with Intent report, only 17 percent of all nonprofit board members are under 40.

“The best boards are not homogenous, they’re a mixture of older and younger and people who are more diverse and less diverse and who have all different jobs,” Hassett, of WEAVE, says.

Kim Tucker, who is president of The Impact Foundry in Sacramento, agrees on the value that the business students provide. “What I try to help young people understand is that you have skills that you don’t even realize are so needed in that nonprofit,” says Tucker, who has led training for the UC Davis program.

Often, Van Oot adds, “the short-term nature of the placement can help focus an enthusiastic new member’s energy around a specific project or goal.”

“A lot of times, the board really welcomes their participation and the person who is participating really gives back,” says CalNonprofits CEO Jan Masaoka. “Sometimes these people are more effective than a regular board member.”

Rob Shanahan, board chair of PUENTES, a Stockton-based sustainable agriculture nonprofit that has also had a fellow, adds that, “We’re always looking to add new board members, especially ones who are an infusion of excitement.”

Last year at Valley Vision, their fellow MBA student Kirti Adlakha assisted with a rebranding campaign and helped make board meetings more efficient. “These were MBA students learning about the latest in terms of business, whether it’s about marketing issues or management issues, we were able to use that to have a student to do some evaluation of us, too,” Valley Vision Operating Officer Alan Lange says. “[Our fellow] provided a very helpful critical eye.”

The program continues to grow. Van Oot reports that this year “at least 10 local organizations are participating, including The Woodland Opera House and Ticket To Dream, a foundation that supports children in foster care.” Alumni also are staying engaged; for example, Gillett will remain on a WEAVE subcommittee. And Adlakha says she will stay involved with nonprofits.

“Every MBA student should take a leadership role, especially in a nonprofit,” Adlakha says, although it is important to be cautious and recognize that not all MBA students are leadership material, and nonprofit boards are not designed to be training grounds.  The vetting and training aspects of the program are critical to the program actually benefiting nonprofits rather than becoming an unwanted burden.

In the end, this program has some very attractive components and addresses head-on one of the scandals of nonprofit board makeups, But, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t point out some of the soft spots in the rationale. One thing is for sure: Sitting on a nonprofit board can be a great education in many aspects of management thinking.—Steve Dubb