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April 16, 2009

An Insider’s Perspective on Nonprofit Board Leadership

Joyce Roché ’72, CEO of Girls, Inc., talks about her role as a mentor in the School’s Nonprofit Board Leadership Program and how the program benefits both students and the nonprofits on whose boards they serve.


Now in its third year, the School’s Nonprofit Board Leadership Program (NBLP) connects students with mentors — most of whom are Columbia Business School alumni — who serve on the boards of nonprofits across New York. Students get acquainted with how nonprofit boards function, while nonprofits benefit from each student’s in-depth exploration of a key issue.

Joyce Roché ’72, CEO of Girls, Inc., and a member of the Social Enterprise Program’s advisory board, has served as an NBLP mentor since the program launched in September 2006. This year she’s working with Neha Gupta ’09, who is exploring how Girls, Inc., can optimize the role of social networking in marketing and fundraising. (Read about other NBLP projects involving such nonprofits as the Jewish Community Center, the American Composer’s Orchestra and Legal Momentum.)

This is your third year with the NBLP. How has Girls, Inc., benefited from the program?

Having the availability and expertise of a student has been an asset for our organization. In 2006, I worked with Manya Rubinstein ’06, whose project examined board self-evaluation and best practices in response to Sarbanes-Oxley. We had a template we were offering to local affiliates but hadn’t used it in a formal way with our national board. Manya reviewed and contacted other nonprofits and corporations and researched the process. She proposed a system to us that is now fully functioning within our organization. We knew we needed to do this, but it’s not something we had the time or staff resources to investigate on our own.

Today, our resources are even scarcer, so Neha’s project is especially valuable. She is assessing the new-media landscape to help us understand how we might use tools like social networking more effectively. What are other nonprofits doing? Are we using our existing electronic tools extensively enough? Are there opportunities for us to use them differently? What are some of the pitfalls?

What qualities do you think make for an effective nonprofit board member?

Passion and commitment to the mission of whatever organization a person is a part of.

Someone who realizes that he or she is there to contribute his or her expertise. You often hear it said that some board members park their experiences at the door. But what you’re there to do is provide your expertise, which may not be available to the organization elsewhere. It’s also important to respect the skills that do exist at these organizations. Being open to that and to learning — and not going in as if you’re the one that knows everything — is important.

Finally, someone who makes him- or herself available as a full participant, even when it’s not possible to attend every meeting. For example, if an organization calls a board member for a recommendation, our best board members consciously look at their responsiveness as something that’s important. You are always in a sense your organization’s ambassador, wherever you happen to be.

You transitioned to the nonprofit sector after a remarkably successful career in marketing, first as Avon Products’ first African American female vice president and then as president and COO of Carson Products Company. What sparked your initial interest in the nonprofit sector?

I had been asked to get involved in a number of volunteer efforts but it wasn’t until I was about 10 years into my career before I agreed to be part of a corporate advisory board for Queens College. I was very busy at the time, but I was convinced that it was something that I’d find gratifying. It gave me a chance to interact with people who were not in my industry and to feel like I made an immediate impact. The investment in time turned out to be minuscule compared to what I got from it.

I wish I had had a little taste of that when I was at Columbia, back when the concept of social enterprise was in its infancy. I probably would have realized then that, rather than taking your time and energy, this sort of work gives you energy. It broadens you and provides you with a balance in your life.

Do you have any advice for alumni interested in serving on a nonprofit board or, ultimately, transitioning to the nonprofit sector?

Serving on a board is a wonderful way to get a taste of the nonprofit sector. Get involved as soon as possible! If you say you’ll do it when you have time, you won’t have time. You’ll realize that it gives you so much more than you could ever think about contributing to an organization.

It’s also a wonderful sector to think about as you evolve in your career. Increasingly, nonprofits need business expertise. You’re using a lot of the same skills that you would in a for-profit entity. From a regulatory standpoint, there’s a lot of convergence now — take a look at the new 990, which has some of the same elements as a proxy statement. From a marketing perspective, you’re selling a mission rather than a product.

Even if you remain in the corporate world and get involved with nonprofits as a volunteer, it can still be part of the balancing act of your life. And maybe, like I did, further along in your career you’ll decide to make a change and bring some of the skills and expertise you’ve developed in the for-profit world to the nonprofit sector. You won’t regret it.

In addition to many other honors, Roché is the recipient of the 2007 Distinguished Alumna Award from Columbia Women in Business. Read more about her career in a recent New York Times column.

The NBLP is open to all MBA and EMBA students. Alumni interested in serving as mentors are invited to contact Sandi Wright of the Social Enterprise Program at sw2049@columbia.edu.

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