Higher Education, Human Resources, and Nonprofits

Women in Finance group hosts primer on board service

Panel discusses nonprofit board structures and criteria for why, where and how to serve.

May 3, 2019
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Julie Metsker, center, moderated a panel discussion on the lack of women in board positions that featured panelists Kathy Crosby, left and Sandra Gaddy. Courtesy Russ Climie, Tiberius Images

Citing Inforum’s 2017 report on women in Michigan’s public companies — which showed only 15% of board members and 13% of executive officers are female — a local association hosted a recent event to help change that.

The Association for Corporate Growth Western Michigan, or ACG Western Michigan, a nonprofit membership organization for business and finance professionals, on April 25 hosted a panel discussion, “Take a Seat at the Board of Directors’ Table” as part of its Women in Finance luncheon series.

The event was held at the University Club, 111 Lyon St. NW, Suite 1025, in downtown Grand Rapids.

Julie Metsker, executive director of ACG Western Michigan, was the panel moderator.

“According to research from Inforum, the overwhelming majority of Michigan boards have two or fewer women on their boards of directors. Across 100 companies researched, only 15% of board members are women, and only 13% of executive officers are women,” Metsker said.

“If we stay on the same rate of growth that we had from 2007-17, women will need another 34 years to reach a balance of 40% on boards and 150 years to get 40% in the C-suites.

“We’re here to talk about this, and hopefully, by getting you involved, we can start to impact it.”

The panelists were Kathy Crosby, recently retired president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids; and Sandra Gaddy, CEO of the Women’s Resource Center in Grand Rapids.

Both women serve on multiple boards, including academic, nonprofit and others.

The discussion centered around different types of board structures, compelling reasons to serve, how to identify where to serve through self-examination and a thorough vetting process, how to get in the board candidate pipeline and how to contribute to a board in a healthy way.

Board structures

Metsker said there are many ways to define board structures, but for the purposes of this talk, she said the two overarching categories are corporate and nonprofit, and within nonprofit — the main focus of the panel discussion — the most common structures are a working board, an advisory board and a combination of the two.

Working boards might or might not have paid staff and expect members to chair or sit on a committee, be responsible for some of the work of the organization, make public appearances, participate in fundraising, and plan and/or participate in events.

Advisory boards advise the full-time staff without directly doing the work of the organization. They lend their name to the organization and may be asked to attend events, provide names of potential donors, review staff and sit on a financial committee but play a smaller leadership role.

Members of a combination board may provide leadership and support in areas such as marketing and fundraising, but the part- or full-time staff of the nonprofit handle the day-to-day responsibilities of the organization.

Metsker said the volume of board responsibilities will depend on the size of the organization. Some boards meet monthly, some quarterly, others bi-annually.

Often, in addition to board members playing a role in fundraising, they are asked to contribute from their own wallets financially as much as they are able.

Reasons to serve

Board service lets directors get as much or more out of it as they give, Metsker and the panelists agreed.

“According to a 2018 research study, there is a plethora of evidence that people who participate in a board position with a nonprofit do better in their job, that it deepens their understanding of the challenges people face, it helps them work better and it’s great professional development,” Metsker said.

Knowing where to serve

Gaddy said she asks herself four main questions when deciding where to serve: Is she passionate about the cause, does the mission align with her personal goals, does the organization have a good reputation and does the time commitment fit into her schedule?

Crosby said she starts with the values of the organization.

“I learned very early in my career that there wasn’t anything more important. I have tried to work in a place where the values were compatible, I’ve always sought to hire people based on values, knowing they could learn (the role),” she said.

She also agreed with Gaddy’s assessment about mission alignment, as well as the time commitment.

“If you look at their schedule and it doesn’t fit in your schedule, it doesn’t work,” she said — not just for the board member, but for the organization.

“It’s very difficult to have board members who aren’t there, to be fighting for a quorum at every meeting, to try and catch everybody up on something you talked about two meetings in a row because there are three people who weren’t there and now you’re going over it again, which takes a lot of time away from the organization moving forward.”

Vetting a board

When prospecting potential board service roles, Gaddy and Crosby also said it’s important to perform due diligence by examining the organization’s 990 tax form — which should be publicly available, either on the nonprofit’s website or at guidestar.org — to look for things like funding sources, where the money is spent, key staff salaries, who is on the board and other quantifiable details.

Qualitatively, it’s important to meet with and interview a board member from that organization to learn about the culture, Crosby said.

She added another extremely important question is to ask whether the board of directors has an insurance policy that will cover risk and potential liability as decisions are made, so board members do not become personally liable.

Entering the pipeline

Audience member Kim Bode, owner and founder of 8THIRTYFOUR Integrated Communications and current regional council member with Inforum West Michigan, said she remembers early in her career not knowing how to get in the pipeline to be considered for a board role. She asked the panelists and moderator to speak to the gathering about where a person can start.

Metsker referred her to ACG University’s annual workshop series “Committing to Community: Nonprofit Board Training,” which provides members and nonmembers an overview of nonprofits, board duties and responsibilities and how to get connected. The series currently is winding down.

The final session, set for May 16, includes a “speed-dating” experience in which participants can get connected to 20-25 local nonprofit leaders and board members.

Besides that opportunity, Crosby recommended picking a handful of organizations you love and volunteering until you rise to the top. She added attending community breakfast and lunch programs with networking components also will help.

Gaddy said getting connected with nonprofits through ACG University offers an incredible opportunity because time-strapped nonprofits come to the event with specific needs.

“For those grassroots nonprofits, they need those skills and abilities that each one of you has to offer,” she said.

“You have an opportunity to interview us to find out more … and then you can make a decision to say, ‘Hey, my strength, my skills and my passion really align with Goodwill or Women’s Resource Center or Habitat for Humanity or WMCAT. We have so many great nonprofits in our community.”

A snapshot of healthy boards

Metsker asked the panelists to describe what a healthy board looks like.

Crosby said when she took over leadership of Goodwill Industries of Grand Rapids, half the board members lived on the same street — a decidedly unhealthy homogeny that led to groupthink.

Over the course of a decade, she and her team worked hard to diversify the gender, ethnicity and age of the board members.

Gaddy agreed diversity is a crucial component of a board, not just a nice option to have. The board must be representative of the people it serves.

“If the board is not diverse, it’s not healthy,” she said.

She added in her experience with other nonprofits, she’s seen some boards consisting of older white men “and that’s it.” Engagement rates are much higher when there is diversity of thought and experience, she said.

“To come to Women’s Resource Center and to have such a diverse wealth of knowledge, such a diverse board — men, women, ages, culturally, gender-wise — it is phenomenal to have that,” she said.

Diversifying the board, Crosby noted, takes consensus building among members who might have almost nothing in common. In one example, she found out two of her board members had belonged to the same accounting fraternity at Western Michigan University and was able to use that link to build a bridge between them.

Gaddy said it’s important to start with trust. Assume that though fellow board members may not agree with you or think like you, they have agreed to keep the best interests of the organization in mind, just as you did.

The final key to a healthy board is that everyone comes together believing the work of the nonprofit is critical to the community, Crosby said.

“A really effective board is all committed to some basic beliefs that they share and therefore can make decisions together knowing that’s where they’re all going to make a difference,” she said.

More information about board service is available at acgwmich.org.

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