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Home  > Article

B-Schoolers and Nonprofits Form Mutually Beneficial Relationships

By Ronald Alsop
Talent Zoo

Emily Vestal never expected to be in the same room with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Rene Fleming and socialite/philanthropist Mercedes Bass. But that's exactly where the Columbia University M.B.A. student found herself recently as a participant in the school's new Nonprofit Board Leadership Program.

She was assigned to a project with Carnegie Hall's board of trustees, which includes the three celebrities and her mentor, Sallie Krawcheck, a Columbia alumna and the chief executive officer of global wealth management at Citigroup.

"I had never been around so many electrifying personalities," says Ms. Vestal. "It was both an exciting and an educational experience." For her Carnegie Hall project, she and a fellow student researched such issues as nonprofit board structures, term limits and strategies for cultivating new members.

Columbia has joined an expanding list of schools -- including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University -- that are connecting M.B.A. students with nonprofit boards and planting the seeds for community service later in their careers. The students get a taste of what it's like to serve on a nonprofit board, and they often make valuable connections with movers and shakers in business, the arts, government and other fields. With limited staff and funding, the boards welcome the chance to assign projects that capitalize on the students' skills in finance, strategy and marketing.

"Sometimes on boards, you end up having the same conversations over and over again," says Ms. Krawcheck. "Carnegie Hall and other nonprofits are looking to develop these M.B.A. students into future board members who can bring a young, fresh perspective."

Indeed, that's what happened with Andy Fenselau. He and six other Stanford University students created what many believe was the first "board fellows" project back in 1997. Today, Mr. Fenselau, a manager at Symantec, is board president of the environmental group he worked with as a Stanford student.

"After graduation, it's hard for most M.B.A. students to commit a lot of time to volunteer work at the program level because we're starting our careers and families," he says. "But board governance doesn't require an inordinate amount of time and allows us to make an immediate contribution to our local communities."

Sachin Kadakia, a student in the Columbia program, was torn between returning to the nonprofit sector, where he had worked on a microcredit project in Tanzania, and becoming a management consultant. He has decided to work for McKinsey after graduation this year, he says, but "in making that trade-off" he also intends to serve on a nonprofit board. "Consulting will sharpen my skills and give me a better network of contacts to parlay in my nonprofit work," he says.

Columbia's practice of pairing students with alumni mentors offers M.B.A. students some unexpected networking benefits. Lulu Wang, chief executive of Tupelo Capital Management and a trustee at public radio station WNYC, worked with M.B.A. student Jennifer Chou on a brand-development project to help the station reach a younger, more diverse audience. An added bonus: an invitation from Ms. Wang to a major conference on China last month that attracted top business and government officials and introduced Ms. Chou to influential people in the Chinese-American community.

The board programs vary a bit from school to school. Students actually become nonvoting board members on many of the projects. At Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, students also take courses on board governance to complement their practical experience with a nonprofit. "There's no way you can learn just by seeing," says Anne Cohn Donnelly, clinical professor of social enterprise at Kellogg. "You need the link to theory."

Both students and nonprofits compete to be part of board leadership programs. At Kellogg, more than 160 students applied for 45 spots next school year, while more than 100 Chicago-area organizations would like to be assigned one of those 45 M.B.A. board fellows. The Kohl Children's Museum in Glenview, Ill., enlisted Kellogg board fellows to help manage its bond financing and investments, expand its special-events marketing to attract weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate parties, and conduct a compensation study so it would be more competitive in recruiting staff members. "The M.B.A. students have helped enormously because there are never enough hands and brains to get the job done," says Sheridan Turner, the museum's president.

Through such projects, M.B.A. students come to understand that they need more than a passion about a particular cause to join a nonprofit board. As future board members, they will be expected to use their business connections to attract donations and other support for the nonprofit. (Nonetheless, some schools discourage nonprofits from pressuring students to solicit contributions during their board fellowships.)

Students also learn that their role should be as overseer, not manager, and that they must be patient because nonprofit boards don't move as fast as the corporate world. "Research shows that a lot of business people are not very effective on nonprofit boards," says Raymond Horton, director of the Social Enterprise Program at Columbia Business School. "They often don't know how far to push their business talents and end up trying to micromanage."


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