FINDING the RIGHT FIT: Program to put execs in board seats, but will firms be willing to pay for it?

Keywords Small Business

Ruth Purcell Jones knows the statistics well. Nearly 1.8 million board seats at not-forprofit organizations turn over every year, presenting a challenge for charities already trying to fill the 1.2 million positions open at any given time.

And anecdotal evidence backs up the national research.

“If there’s one thing I hear over and over, it’s, ‘We can’t find board members,'” said Jones, president of Indianapolis-based governance consultant Trustee Leadership Development. “It’s really a ‘Who do you know?’ kind of thing. Most organizations-especially small ones-can’t reach beyond the network they’re already in.”

At the same time, businesses interested in being good corporate citizens are increasingly encouraging their employees to get involved in the community. All too often, Jones said, they don’t know where to start.

So this summer, TLD is collaborating with Lacy Leadership Association to test a matchmaking service of sorts, working to connect local not-for-profits with business professionals willing to step into leadership roles.

But organizers don’t want Indy ONboard to merely arrange the occasional blind date. By assessing both the charities’ needs and volunteers’ skills-and providing board training for new members-its goal is to develop lasting relationships.

Although the pilot program is free to both not-for-profits and prospective board members, ultimately its success will depend on TLD’s ability to develop a different relationship: one with the companies it hopes will foot the bill.

Corporate “membership” in the program ranges from $1,000 for one board appointment and the related training to $15,000 for 15 board seats and an array of other services, including customized seminars and consulting.

“Businesses are already investing in the community,” said Program Director Annie Hernandez. “We’ll help them look at the big picture … and how board service fits into that, so they can think more strategically about their overall community investment.”

First-year projections call for working with 26 corporations to train and place 86 individuals on charity boards, generating about $110,000 in revenue for TLD, a notfor-profit itself.

Indy ONboard is modeled after Cleveland’s Business Volunteers Unlimited, a similar effort that has placed more than 1,100 corporate volunteers on boards since its founding 13 years ago.

Businesses pay for the service because they “recognize the valuable opportunity to strengthen our community while developing leadership skills of their employees,” BVU President Brian Broadbent wrote in an e-mail to IBJ.

That’s the idea, anyway. Whether Indianapolis businesses will get on board remains to be seen-especially as the city’s corporate landscape continues to change through mergers and acquisitions.

“Sometimes merged organizations want to participate in something like this and sometimes they just leave,” said Richard Moyers, a former executive director of the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations who helped test the BVU concept elsewhere in the state.

Although such “high-touch” matching programs have been successful elsewhere, he and others said, they have flaws. For example, corporate sponsors tend to be large companies, leaving small businesses and independent contractors out of the board pools. And then there’s the biggie:

“It’s expensive,” admitted Brooke Mahoney, executive director of New Yorkbased Volunteer Consulting Group, which offers a $4,000 board-matching service and in 2002 launched a free Internet database that allows would-be board members to look for openings themselves.

Still, some firms prefer the customized approach.

“We’ve had a number of companies call and say there’s no way their senior VP is going to go through an online process,” she said.

TLD’s Jones said the Indianapolis business community’s initial response to the concept has been positive. She’s optimistic about the program’s potential and hopes eventually to attract donors who will help smaller firms participate.

“We’ve had interest from the corporate community already,” she said. “No one has said they think it’s a bad idea.”

Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and accounting firm Crowe Chizek are among the local firms talking to Indy ONboard organizers. Both say board service helps employees’ refine their skills-while reinforcing the companies’ civic commitment.

“It’s the right thing to do and it’s also a great way to develop leaders,” said Crowe Community Relations Manager Amber Roos. “The benefits of serving on nonprofit boards are significant for our people and the community in general.”

The half-day training for all prospective board members is a key selling point, Jones said, since proper preparation can mean the difference between an effective leader and someone who’s just filling a seat. It also helps volunteers make the transition from a for-profit mentality to a philanthropic one.

“They’re used to dealing in these tangible absolutes … if they’re not making a profit, they’re not doing their job,” Jones said. “Working in a mission-driven organization, working with the community, is a much different type of responsibility.”

Indeed, TLD isn’t alone in trying to bridge that gap. Central Indiana already is home to a number of programs-including Indy ONboard collaborator Lacy Leadership Association-that aim to educate the corporate community about civic needs.

Graduates of the four Leadership United programs at United Way of Central Indiana, in fact, end their months-long training by joining not-for-profit boards, said Angie Kolman, director of the agency’s Volunteer Center. And if they need help finding a charity to help, UWCI stands ready to lend a hand.

“In most cases, they’re already aware of an organization they want to get involved with,” she said, “something they have a passion for.”

Kolman is familiar with the plans for Indy ONboard, but wouldn’t share her assessment of the program-or her take on the demand for additional leadership training in Indianapolis.

“If they can find a niche for a shorter leadership program, more power to them,” she said, declining further comment on the concept. “This is free enterprise. We are in America.”

For its part, LLA saw enough demand for corporate-charity matchmaking to launch its annual Get on Board volunteer fair in 2003. The half-day event, which provides a venue for local not-for-profits to meet and greet potential board members, attracts hundreds of participants each year.

Indy ONboard seems like a logical next step, said association Executive Director Theresa Rhodes.

“We see it as really honing in on people’s interests and skill sets,” she said, “and fine-tuning the matchmaking process in a way we’re not able to do at Get on Board because of the sheer numbers.”

The potential benefits to not-for-profits are obvious: In addition to finding educated, motivated board members, they get a ready-made connection to a company that already has invested in them through Indy ONboard. And since many corporate giving programs award grants to organizations their employees are involved in, there’s always the possibility of more.

So what’s in it for the company?

Lots, proponents say: Visibility. Connections. Reputation. A better place to live.

“There are many benefits to corporations,” said Moyers, the former Ohio notfor-profit executive who now works as a program officer at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C. “They could do it on their own, but it’s much easier if they have a broker who understands the nonprofit sector. The existence of a third party makes it that much more likely that a match will be successful.”

And as illogical as it seems, he said charging a fee may well be more attractive than a free service.

“Corporations, just like individuals sometimes, tend to value things more that they pay for,” he said. “They know they’re paying for this, so they’re motivated to make sure it happens.”

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