Grantmakers + Governance = Organizational Success!

photo (4)The Annenberg Foundation funds what it considers to be a nonprofit’s most important asset — its leaders, both staff and board. Why? Because it sees a direct correlation between a nonprofit’s results and the strength of its leadership. Eight years ago, to further its mission, the Annenberg Foundation created Annenberg Alchemy, a leadership training program for nonprofit board chairs, board members, and chief executives living, working, and serving nonprofits in the Los Angeles area. BoardSource is an Annenberg Alchemy strategic partner and its consultants are among the program’s facilitators.

Sylia Obagi managed Alchemy for the past eight years. Now in transition between her role as Annenberg’s director of programs and operations and her new role as the first executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, Sylia sat down with Anne Wallestad, president and CEO of BoardSource, to share her perspectives on the connections between grantmakers, governance, and organizational success.

Anne Wallestad: The Annenberg Foundation has put a stake in the ground that board leadership and governance is something it cares deeply about. Tell us how it came to that thinking, and why it’s so important to the Foundation.

Sylia Obagi: Annenberg’s mission is advancing a better tomorrow through visionary leadership today. It believes that visionary leadership at the CEO and board level will drive impact, results, and sustainability — ensuring that an organization can make the greatest impact with every dollar that it spends. Many staff members of the Foundation have come from the nonprofit side and experienced firsthand what’s possible when you’ve got effective, engaged board leadership and a strong board–staff partnership. We’ve also seen that a dysfunctional board can bring an organization down.

To understand our theory of change, you just have to look at the numbers and ratios as they relate to nonprofit leadership. We’ve got roughly a million nonprofits and a million chief executives in this country. That’s a big pool of leaders, but when you compare it to the 15 to 20 million board leaders who are also closely aligned with the success of our nonprofits (and ultimately responsible for their success), you begin to see that grantmakers have been investing their time, energy, and resources disproportionately. As grantmakers, we need to invest more in board member training — ensuring nonprofit organizations have volunteer leaders who support an organization’s resiliency. Changes in the nonprofit landscape are constant, demand for services is growing, and funding is always fluctuating. Therefore, the resiliency of a nonprofit depends on its volunteer leaders’ ability to proactively navigate these difficult dynamics on behalf of their organization.

In the eight years since we launched Annenberg Alchemy, we’ve seen it really transform organizations. It’s about shifting a paradigm, shifting a culture, creating a new way of thinking about governance and how critical it is to organizational effectiveness.


Culture — The Holy Grail of Good Governance

photo (4)By Michael R. Vanderpool, principal, Signature Success LLC

This is the third in our series of posts written by nonprofit leaders who will be presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, D.C. We hope you will be joining us.

For many years, boards have been on a mission to do a better job of governing. There has been no shortage of ideas as to how to make this happen. Yet, the quest continues as board members, board chairs, and CEOs look for the magic bullet of great governance. Having served on more than 20 nonprofit boards over several decades, I have observed and participated in this journey. And what I have learned is that the answer is not better by-laws, more dashboard reports, or more detailed conflict of interest policies. The best way to significantly improve governance is to change the way boards think, work, and act. In other words, to become the best possible leaders they can be, boards need to change their culture.

Board culture drives governance. Yet, in my experience, few boards spend any time thinking about their culture and even fewer understand what a good culture looks like. As a result of having advised and served on a wide variety of boards, I have found that really great boards have cultures with four characteristics. They are strategically focused, well-trained, active, and results oriented. They have what I call a STARBoard culture. These boards transform themselves into a high-performance team, and it is this high-performance culture that drives great governance. Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team calls this teamwork “the ultimate competitive advantage both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

What do these high-performance teams look like in the boardroom? STARBoards are focused on the future and ways to constantly improve the organizations they govern. The board members clearly understand their role and the business model of their entity. Board meetings are full of purpose and energy and engage the talents of each member. Most importantly, the board encourages, supports, and demands real results. When these elements coalesce, the result is a highly effective team that truly provides excellent governance.

For this reason, the process of developing cultural awareness and engaging in culture-altering activities should be at the top of every board’s to-do list. Cultural awareness starts with an understanding of the board’s current culture. This can be determined by using a cultural assessment tool. With this information in hand, the board must do three things:

1. The board must actively decide what type of culture it wants to develop. What will it look like? What values will the board see being expressed?

2. The board must formally commit to change. The change leaders must paint a clear picture of how the new culture will make the organization better. It is critical that the entire board commits to becoming a high-performance team. Without this commitment, the transformation will fail. The CEO, board chair, and key members of the board must lead the effort. Connor and Smith put it this way in their book, Change the Culture, Change the Game. “Cultural changes must be led. You can’t delegate the initiative to human resources, organizational development or anyone else…[The board] must maintain ownership of the process…” While I agree with this, the reality is that few board leaders are culture change agents. Boards typically need outside help with the technical aspects of change — which leads us to the third leg of the journey to good governance.

3. The board must change its processes. Process feeds culture, and culture dictates process in reinforcing loops. Only by changing their processes can boards initiate and sustain cultural change. Fortunately, the studies of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and small-group dynamics provide a foundation for developing new board processes.

Cultural awareness, a commitment to change, and execution drive transformation. All are necessary if a board is to become the high-performance leadership team that is a STARBoard. Having created this cultural foundation, boards can truly go about the important work of good governance. With the right culture, boards can and will become the leaders our nonprofit organizations need and deserve.

Michael R. Vanderpool is a principal in Signature Success, LLC, a board consulting company. He is also a business attorney and an adjunct professor in the School of Management at George Mason University. He will be presenting a session titled “Custom Designing a Better Board Culture” at BLF2014.

Business Model Thinking: Three Things Your Board Must Understand

photo (4)By Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder, Principled Innovation LLC, and Michael Anderson, president & CEO, Canadian Society of Association Executives

 This is the second in our series of posts written by nonprofit leaders who will be presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, D.C. Please consider joining us.

As the pace of societal transformation continues to accelerate, nonprofit boards must develop their capacity for generative business model thinking. The business model, which we define as the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value, is also the framework that integrates the organization’s commitment to purposeful action with the equally critical pursuit of a responsible level of profitability. (Yes, you read that correctly. “Nonprofit” is simply a tax status, not a business model, and a measure of profitability is essential to make investments in building organizational capacity every year.)

To help your board fully embrace business model thinking, here are three things you and your colleagues need to know:

  • Business model stewardship is the most important form of fiduciary responsibility. Most nonprofit boards pursue fiduciary responsibility through the regular review of key financial documents, such as audits, balance sheets, and P&L statements. This type of oversight, although absolutely necessary, is mostly retrospective, and thus insufficient to build organizations capable of thriving in the years ahead. For 21st-century nonprofits, fiduciary responsibility requires energetic business model stewardship. Every nonprofit board has a duty to build a deep understanding of the organization’s existing business model to grapple productively with more complicated questions about new value creation for both current and future stakeholders.
  • Business model innovation must be an ongoing priority. When it comes to creating value, nonprofit organizations must listen closely to and learn with empathy for their stakeholders, many of who have demonstrated a strong preference for more open and inclusive platforms that embrace their technology-enhanced mobility, create more meaningful interactions, and enable simpler collaboration with their networks. For 21st-century nonprofits, coming to terms with and capitalizing on these new dynamics of value creation means boards must make consistent and well-paced investments in business model innovation in the years ahead.
  • Business model design is about nurturing both adaptability and resilience. The critical business model design challenge for nonprofit boards is crafting new business models that are both adaptable and resilient. Adaptive business models can more easily adjust to shifting conditions and are flexible enough to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Resilient business models are organized around a coherent strategic core that creates lasting influence with stakeholders by solving their short-term problems, meeting their intermediate-term needs, and helping them achieve their long-term outcomes. For 21st-century nonprofits, designing adaptive and resilient business models is essential to building organizations that can thrive.

For 21st-century nonprofits, the business model conversation is the most important dialogue your board will have for the foreseeable future. To have the right conversation, nonprofit boards must work with their staff partners to remove any obstacles that may interfere with the serious work of business model stewardship, innovation, and design.

Jeff and Michael will present the BLF Professional Development Institute, “Business Model Design Lab for Nonprofit Boards,” on Thursday, October 9, 2014 from 9:30 am -12:15 pm.

Donor vs. Investor: An Important Distinction

plantsBy Tom Ralser, principal, Convergent Nonprofit Solutions

This post is one in a series written by individuals who will be presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 9 & 10. We hope you’ll be joining us.

So, what exactly is a nonprofit investor? Are donors investors? A key part of fundraising is learning what an investor is, who your investors are, what they value, and what return on investment they expect to see from your organization.

In my book Asking Rights, I offer the following definitions:

Donor: An individual or organization who typically provides low­-level (the definition of “low level” varies by nonprofit size, budget, funding model, etc.) and often sporadic financial support that is not necessarily connected to the mission of the nonprofit.

Investor: A type of funder who is looking for a return on his or her investment (often incorrectly referred to as a gift or donation). Although the term is more indicative of the mindset rather than the amount of money involved, an investor typically makes larger financial commitments that span several years. An investor is most concerned with the long-term success of the nonprofit.

As you can see, there are several very distinct differences between nonprofit donors and nonprofit investors and how each thinks. Take a look at these two examples:

1. When addressing the need for funding,
• a donor will ask “Have you demonstrated the need for your service?”
• an investor will ask “How will funding your organization improve the situation?”

2. When discussing the funding level requested,
• a donor will ask “Have we sufficiently spread our available funding across those organizations addressing the problem?”
• an investor will ask “Is this the right amount of money for your organization to bring about real change?”

Investors are the people most committed to seeing to the long-term success of your organization and are most likely to commit large dollars, both of which are key to a successful capital campaign. Understanding the differences between investors and donors will increase your fundraising results, and I look forward to discussing this in more detail at BLF.

Tom’s BLF session is titled “Identifying and Communicating Outcomes That Increase Funding.”

Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It)

photo (4)By Jan Masaoka, publisher, Blue Avocado; CEO, California Association of Nonprofits

No matter what goes wrong in a nonprofit, somehow the board gets blamed. If the executive director embezzled money, people say, “Where was the board?” Why don’t they say: “Executives are always at the root of the problem. Why don’t we just stop having them?” In fact, boards and board members don’t get credit for some important work they do without even realizing they are doing it. Think about it:

1. Safety net

The confident trapeze artist doesn’t really see the point of the expensive safety net. Few people appreciate safety nets — or boards — when things are going fine. But when a nonprofit’s staff leadership falls off the tightrope, nonprofit boards step up, govern, fix things, and hire a new, better executive.

Think of a nonprofit scandal such as the executive of a halfway house molesting residents, or the executive of a disaster relief nonprofit embezzling money. In virtually all of these cases, the board — whether previously asleep or lied to — stepped in and saved things.

In a for-profit small business, such a problem would simply bring the company down. But nonprofit boards know that communities and people are hurt when nonprofits fail. Those silent, unappreciated safety nets do their jobs when called upon.

2. Speed limits patrolled by aircraft

When people drive down an empty country highway and see this sign, they slow down, even if there don’t seem to be any planes overhead. Even executives who speak contemptuously about their boards end up being more careful because the board is there. When a board member reviews the CEO’s expense report, the CEO is more likely to keep those expenses reasonable, even if that board member signs the report without really looking at it.

And having to report to the board — such as through a quarterly written report — acts to help an executive reflect on past activities and re-focus on priorities.

3. Putting their own bank accounts at risk for staff wrongdoing

By being on the board, board members expose themselves to liabilities that D&O insurance doesn’t cover. (D&O by law can’t insure board members against tax failings or criminal acts. If it could, we would all get D&O insurance, and then fail to remit payroll taxes.)

When staff don’t submit the payroll taxes withheld from employee paychecks or the employer-paid payroll taxes, board members can be individually liable. We’ve seen board members of a small nonprofit alternative college have to chip in thousands of dollars because the staff was “borrowing” from the payroll taxes. We’ve seen board members have liens put on their houses.

By taking these actions, board members are not only helping the organization. They are helping the community served.

4. Baton relay

Boards take the organization back when the executive leaves, find a new executive, and then turn the organization over to that new leader. This is one way to understand executive director departure, and the board’s role in this transition.

5. SWAT team in waiting

It’s rare for executive directors to cry “help!” in despair to their boards. We executives like to tell the board about a problem just seconds before telling the board about the solution we have devised. (And then, of course, the exec wonders why the board always expects them to be able to pull yet another rabbit out of the hat).

But when an exec is really at a loss over a problem and asks in despair for help, board members leap in. A lawsuit? Board members identify lawyers to help pro bono. Someone has to drive the musicians to the concert at the prison tonight and there’s no one else to do it? A board member will cancel plans and volunteer. Being evicted with two weeks’ notice? Board members will pressure the landlord, call lawyers, try to get the city to stop the eviction. Is your nonprofit homeless shelter being blamed unfairly — something like where a man stayed at the shelter and three weeks later killed someone? Board members will stick up for the organization.

Executives seldom ask board members for help on urgent, crucial, big things. When we do, we usually get the help we need. To quote the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”


In Defense of Mission

By Anne Walhandslestad, president & CEO

Last week, the folks behind the “America’s Worst Charities” article, which triggered a widespread discussion about the fundraising practices of nonprofits, launched a new resource called “Charity Checker.” Designed to help donors access aggregated data about nonprofit financials, performance, and commitment to transparency, one can understand the appeal of this new resource. It’s easy, straightforward, and helps donors evaluate whether an organization is worthy of their hard-earned dollars.

Many would argue that a resource like this is desperately needed, given some of the scandals that have rocked the charitable sector, not the least of which is the recent exposé done by The Washington Post about the number of organizations that have fallen victim to fraud and theft. I don’t necessarily disagree with the value of this type of donor-focused resource (though I think that between Guidestar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving, we are pretty well covered), but would argue that we need to do more to ensure donors do not miss the big picture about what the charitable sector was created to do.

Oftentimes, when a charity experiences a scandal, the public outcry is “How dare they abuse donors’ funds that way?” While perfectly understandable, I believe this is a misguided outrage. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that organizations have not only an ethical responsibility — but also a legal duty — to be honest and forthright in their interactions with donors. We owe those who invest their hard-earned dollars in our missions honesty, integrity, and clarity; without it, the charitable sector will not deserve or receive the support that it needs to fuel its important work.  But the greater tragedy and offense when nonprofits abuse the resources entrusted to them is against their own missions, and the people and communities they serve.

Why is this such an important distinction? From a societal perspective, we are miseducating donors about what makes an effective organization (hint: it’s not all about avoiding scandals and having low overhead) and — more broadly — we are mischaracterizing the purpose of the charitable sector.

If we’re going to rally resources to help donors better evaluate organizations, let’s focus on their strategies and impact, not just their accounting practices. And if we’re going to take to the streets to defend those who have been wronged when nonprofits falter, let’s focus on the communities and individuals who need the support, strength, and integrity of the nonprofit sector, not those who fund it.

This post also appeared in The Huffington Post.

Don’t Wait to Be Asked

walkBy Anne Wallestad, president & CEO

In the world of fundraising, there’s a mantra, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”  And it’s true.  Organizations that wait for donors to come to them don’t typically do so well when it comes to fundraising.  And fundraisers – whether board or staff members – learn early on that leaving fundraising to chance is a recipe for disaster and disappointment.

The same could be said for board recruitment:  Waiting for potential board members to find you is not a winning scenario.  From a practical standpoint, you’re unlikely to have enough potential board members find you to effectively populate your board.  And from a strategic standpoint, you’re even less likely to find the blend of skill sets, community connections, and interpersonal dynamics that characterize the most effective boards.

But the importance of proactivity and thoughtful selection of board service opportunities goes both ways.  Individuals who are considering joining a board are wise to think about what they’re looking for in a board service opportunity.  And, once they know what that is, I would argue that it’s not smart to wait for it to come to you.

Why?  Because the most effective board members are individuals who are truly passionate about what an organization does; are willing to commit time, resources, and energy to strengthen and sustain it; and embrace board service as a serious commitment.  Self-identifying your commitment to an organization is a powerful first step in the right direction.

There is power in knowing what you want and going after it.  Here are good things to keep in mind when you do:

  • Consider working through a partner:  There are lots of organizations that help to identify and source board members for nonprofits in a specific community or mission area.  They’re a great place to start when looking for a board service opportunity.
  • Do your homework:  Learn about the organization’s programs and what its key strategies are for the future.  Read up on who’s currently serving on its board to get a sense of what the organization looks for in terms of its board profile and whether you could bring a new perspective or skill set.
  • Go with your gut:  You may find — once you get to know the organization a bit — that something feels “off” and that the thought of joining its board is making you uneasy.  Don’t ignore that feeling.  It’s much easier to avoid a bad board situation than to get out of one.  Check out Rick Moyers’s post Want to Avoid a Bad Board Experience?  Consider Saying No for some specific things to watch out for when considering a board.
  • Take no for an answer:  Just because a specific board service opportunity seems like the right fit for you doesn’t mean it will be the right fit for the organization.  It’s critical that organizations and individuals are honest about what they both are looking for and need.  If this particular organization isn’t looking for someone with your experience and background, that’s ok.  Move on and look for an organization that is.  For more on that topic, check out my previous post on What Online Dating Can Teach You About Boards.

Do you have a good story about going after a board service opportunity?  We’d love to hear about it.

Meet Our New Board Member of the Month

photo (4)By BoardSource

BoardSource and Points of Light are pleased to announce that Sheff Crowder is the newest Board Member of the Month. BoardSource and Points of Light created the Board Member of the Month Award to honor outstanding individuals for their commitment to advancing the public good through exceptional nonprofit board leadership.

Sheff serves as the founder and a volunteer board member of the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay, FL. He is president of the Conn Memorial Foundation.

In nominating Sheff for the Board Member of the Month Award, Grace Armstrong, executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Center, noted the following:

“In his role as a funder in the Tampa Bay community, Sheff saw the need for education of area nonprofits so that they could have the skills to achieve their missions effectively and efficiently. And in 1996, he brought together a coalition of community funders to create the Leadership Center, which teaches nonprofits the skills to run their businesses.

“Since that time, Sheff has served the Center as board chair, board treasurer, and as a board member while observing appropriate best practices in term limits. He has not lost his passion for or involvement with the organization. He develops other board members into leaders, elicits generative thinking from both the board and the staff, and is always willing to take a back seat when others have stepped up to provide leadership. Sheff uses his sphere of influence to bring resources to the table and is not afraid to make an ask on behalf of the Center. He is a volunteer instructor in our finance series, actively participates on committees, and is a thoughtful sounding board for me, as he loves to engage in analytical thinking. Among the initiatives he has helped develop is a partnership with the University of Tampa that resulted in a graduate-level Certificate in Nonprofit Management, a Leadership Conference now in its third year, and a Fund Development Academy within the Center. As a board leader, he maintains the perfect balance of involvement, engagement, and listening/observing.

“Sheff’s commitment to the Center has spanned 16 years. He created a resource that has changed the nonprofit landscape in the Tampa Bay area and is untiring in his belief that the best way to positively impact the nonprofit sector and subsequently change the world is through education.”

Recently, BoardSource asked Sheff a few questions about his board service:

What inspires you to serve on this board? I am the president of the local foundation, hired in 1993. The chair who hired me was a long-time community leader and wanted me to build the nonprofit structure.  Three years later, in 1996, I founded the Leadership Center, and my focus has been there ever since.  We have found that many nonprofit leaders come from the program side and are thrust into having to run the business side without the skills and knowledge needed.  We therefore mentor in the business aspects of running a nonprofit. One of the programs allows you to get a M.B.A. and a certificate in nonprofit management from the local college.

What does leadership mean to you? Having good strategy, fiscal oversight, and the right people on and off the bus. Sometimes hard decisions have to be made. You have to stay focused on what is right for the agency, and stop trying to please everyone.

What do you consider the most important quality in a nonprofit board to attract good board members? Strategic thinking at the board level is a quality that good board members will be attracted to.

What do you consider the most important quality in a nonprofit board member? The Leadership Center looks for board members who are passionate about our mission, bring a special skill set, are able to raise money, or have program expertise — all of these add value to the agency.

What do you think is the most important thing you have contributed to this board? Recognizing that there was a need for a regional asset and taking the steps to put it in place and grow it over the years.

What advice would you give to aspiring board members on how to make a difference? Find a mission that you are passionate about and make sure you fit the board’s culture and feel good about the organization’s leadership. Then, figure out how you can best contribute to the board and organization.  Providing strong fiscal oversight, developing strategy, and monitoring it makes a difference.

What does this award mean to you? I am honored to be recognized by two national organizations — BoardSource and Points of Light — that I think highly of. Both the current and past chief executives of the Center have gone through BoardSource trainings and our current CEO is a BoardSource certified governance trainer. Boardsource has been our go-to resource.

Interested in recognizing an outstanding board member for his or her contribution to your organization? Nominate him or her here.


Is Nonprofit Board Service Worth It? Reflections from a One-Time Skeptic

phil_blogBy Phillip Henderson, vice chair, BoardSource Board of Directors; president, Surdna Foundation

When I took the job as president of the Surdna Foundation in 2007, I was not surprised to be showered with flattery and pursued by people who hoped I might just write a check to support their work. What I hadn’t fully anticipated were the many requests to serve on nonprofit boards.

Early in my career, I have to admit, I was a bit of skeptic about boards, thinking they were really just window dressing. Wasn’t a board member’s job simply lending his or her name to the organization’s letterhead, attending quarterly meetings, and offering the occasional nugget of wisdom?  In other words:  Don’t board members just show up and smile? It would be difficult to convince a skeptic otherwise, for we’ve all heard the not-so-apocryphal-sounding stories of big corporate boards that were asleep at the wheel while their CEOs did nefarious deeds. 

Some of my doubt about board service stemmed from the utter failure of boards at companies like Enron and WorldCom. While these catastrophes did lead to legislation aimed at creating greater accountability at both corporate and nonprofit boards, the primary effect of that law, known as Sarbanes-Oxley, seems to have been an increase in paperwork and formal checklists, not to mention fees paid to lawyers and accountants.  It’s difficult to say how effective it has been. Board members do, however, pay far more attention to the tax returns and the work of audit committees.

So I harbored these doubts, but it was not until my first personal experience on a board that I awoke to the reality of the seriousness and responsibility of being a board member.

In 2003, while at the German Marshall Fund, I joined the board of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, which included representatives from the funders who created the Trust — the Ford, Mott, and Open Society foundations, German Marshall Fund, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.  Soon after I joined, the board realized that the very future of the Trust required completely retooling the business model and transitioning to new leadership. It was the board, which I chaired, that was expected to roll up its sleeves and get this done. The work was serious and time-consuming, and the challenges could not have been bigger. And nowhere in sight was the ceremonial, make-wise-comments board experience I had anticipated.

I’ve since found that my Trust experience was not an anomaly. Board service is serious and demanding business, a reality that is often obscured by the fact that most nonprofit board members are “volunteers.” And, in many cases, board members are also donors — often significant ones. The checks they’re writing, in addition to the many hours they’re giving, only add to their sense of ownership and commitment to the organization’s success.

Since coming to Surdna six years ago, the invitations to join boards have been frequent.  I am now serving on three boards — Living Cities, Romanian-American Foundation (RAF), and BoardSource — plus acting as an advisor to Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement.  I take board service seriously, and because I have learned it is time-intensive and demands year-round attention, I think I’ve got a pretty full dance card.

But why serve on nonprofit boards at all?  I have several motivations for my own board service, some of which can be broadly applied to all who are interested in social change:


Meet Our New Board Member of the Month

September Winner Headshot - rachel kiddell-monroeBy BoardSource

BoardSource and Points of Light are pleased to announce that Rachel Kiddell-Monroe is the newest Board Member of the Month. BoardSource and Points of Light created the Board Member of the Month Award to honor outstanding individuals for their commitment to advancing the public good through exceptional nonprofit board leadership.

Rachel serves as the board president of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), located in Oakland, California. She is a lawyer who resides in Montreal, Quebec.

In nominating Rachel for the Board Member of the Month Award, Jane Andrews, leader of UAEM’s human resources committee, noted the following:

“Rachel, a lawyer residing in Canada, has been an impressive force of leadership as board president of UAEM. Our board consists of recent graduate school alumni, many young physicians and lawyers, who are united by our commitment to creating public access to publicly funded research. Only an individual as renowned, experienced, and inspiring as Rachel would have the guts and the skillset to unite us and guide us through the highs and lows of a start-up nonprofit. Most board members had no prior board experience. Rachel taught each of us what our roles and responsibilities should be and how to complete the necessary business to keep this organization running financially, ethically, and in a mission-oriented way.

“Rachel has guided our organization to establish useful committees, has led us through annual goal-setting, has led critical inventions and reinventions of our five-year organizational strategy, has shepherded our board through times of financial crisis, has singlehandedly raised more funds through her winning personality and top-notch Rolodex than any other board member, and more recently, has led discussions about the importance of adjusting our duties as our board matures. Her sensitivity to personnel issues is unparalleled and has led to true camaraderie among board members as well as with our last two executive directors, both of who received guidance from her frequently as they started their employment.

“With her leadership, our board has developed over the past seven years from a group of individuals whose membership was quite young and who presided over tenuous organizational finances into one that has recruited financial experts, hired highly qualified staff who took over most of the administrative duties, and one with a diverse group of regular donors as well as a large, committed, and international membership base.”

Recently, BoardSource asked Rachel a few questions about her board service:

What inspires you to serve on this board?  There are two parts.  First, our mission of ensuring affordable access to medicines resulting from publically funded medical research carried out on our university campuses. Having worked in in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America with people who died because they could not afford the treatment, this is an issue I am passionate about. Second, the student members. We need new global health leaders and these UAEM members are already showing leadership in global health. They are incredibly committed and bright — it is such a privilege to work with them.  I enjoy helping them present themselves and organize themselves so that they gain more skills and experience, as well as share their knowledge and insights. I wanted UAEM to provide an environment where students are empowered to both act now and gain experience of nonprofit leadership. Part of this is giving them a chance to learn the roles and responsibilities of being a board member firsthand.

 What does leadership mean to you?  Leadership is about being committed to a principle and idea, and then showing people how to make it a reality.  It’s about guiding others and showing them that change can be made. To lead you need to believe in what you are doing, inspire others to believe in it too, and then to be able to organize so that the message is heard.   I believe in being approachable as a leader.   I find this important.  A leader for me is someone people can look up to and get mentorship from.  I also act according to the principles I promote inside UAEM.  What I say is what I do.  I walk the talk, and I strive to be an example for others.

What do you think is the most important quality a nonprofit board should have?  Be driven by an inspiring and concise vision and mission, with clear objectives.  One of the first things I did when I began with UAEM in 2007 was make sure we developed a vision and mission that were owned by all and clear for all. Now, when people are interested in UAEM, they get an immediate feel for what the organization is about and how it aims to reach its goals.  I think a nonprofit board should strive to grow according to the needs of the organization to achieve its objectives and use money entrusted for those goals responsibly and effectively.  I also think it is important to have a strong feeling of collaboration and mutual responsibility among the different board members. A respectful and open atmosphere is essential. While we meet every month on a teleconference, our board only meets twice a year in person.  When we meet we make an effort to make it fun and stimulating and always include a social activity at the end.  One of my favorites is our karaoke night. We laugh a lot and it creates a real sense of bonding.

What is the most important quality for a board member to have?  Aside from being passionate about the issue, a board member needs to be able to listen to others and take into account their views; to be open minded; to be able to communicate and argue a position. If you feel strongly about something, you should ensure you can articulate it and stand by that position. Communication is a critical quality.

What do you consider your most important contribution to UAEM? I am committed to modeling good leadership and empowering young, new leaders. When you are a student, you tend to be treated paternalistically. What I have said is that when we are here together working on access to medicines, we are all equals and as such, we respect each other and recognize each other’s skills and abilities, and use them! I have been on this board for six to seven years and have had no major human resource issues. We have worked hard to promote harmony and openness throughout. I’ve also tried to challenge the classic top-down hierarchy and bring in a flatter structure that puts students and their vision at the center of everything we do.  The board has fiscal and fiduciary responsibilities for the organization but it should not be a distant body.  It needs to be a part of the jigsaw of organizational parts that create the whole.

I came to the organization when it was a network of a few dozen students in the U.S. with no fixed executive director and no secure funding.  We now have more than 120 chapters across the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Europe and new chapters beginning in Nepal, Bangladesh, Singapore, and India.  We have a steady annual budget, a fabulous executive director, and hundreds of students working on critical access to medicines issues on their university campuses.

What does this award mean to you? I feel appreciated and honored. I’m happy to know that our board members are enjoying the organization they are so key in creating. I’m pleased that I can provide leadership for the next generation of leaders.  Of course, it’s also nice to know that I have done something right somewhere!  I hope to carry on supporting UAEM in its international expansion while I also continue with my responsibilities on the international board of Médicins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).


  • Join BoardSource
  • About

    BoardSource is dedicated to advancing the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards and inspiring board service. BoardSource strives to support and promote excellence in board service, is the premier source of cutting-edge thinking and resources related to nonprofit boards, and engages and develops the next generation of board leaders.

    To learn more visit
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Connect

  • © Copyright 2014 BoardSource | 750 9th Street, NW, Suite 650 | Washington, DC 20001-4793
    Phone: (202) 349-2500 or 877-89BOARD (877) 892-6273 | Fax (202) 349-2599

  • Please note: “Exceptional Boards” is committed to facilitating meaningful conversations about nonprofit governance and nonprofit sector issues and welcomes guest bloggers and reader comment. As a result, the viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily represent those of BoardSource, nor can we endorse the accuracy or reliability of any content linked from this blog.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 443 other followers