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Student Diary: Insights on Nonprofit Board Leadership
Student Diary: Insights on Nonprofit Board Leadership
My match for the Nonprofit Board Leadership Program could not have been more perfect. I was paired with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society on a project to assist the organization in developing an internal audit function. The MS Society’s mission is dear to my heart as I’ve had friends impacted by the disease. Further, the project was a great match for my skillset, as I was formerly an external auditor and was very familiar with the nuances of internal auditing. Overall, I immediately saw this pairing as an ideal match, and was excited that I’d be able to add some value to their project.
The match with MS Society was made complete by the fantastic individuals I had the opportunity to work with. My ‘mentor’ through the NBLP program was Mike Bogdonoff, a member of the Board of Trustees living with MS. Mike introduced MS Society into the NBLP through a recommendation from his daughter, Ali Bogdonoff ’18. Mike was my first point of contact from the MS Society, and he greeted me very warmly via phone and committed to helping me in any way he could. Within the MS Society, I worked closely with Paul Weiss, the Chief Operating Officer. Paul is also a former auditor, who began working for the MS Society in 1991 after he learned that his brother was affected by the disease. Paul was very enthusiastic about the project and very grateful to have an MBA student helping to perform the diligence required to begin a successful internal audit department.
Initially, the task seemed pretty daunting, and I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to fully deliver. The MS Society had recently undergone a significant reorganization and worked to centralize most of its accounting and finance functions. The audit committee and management team had more or less decided that it was past time to build an internal audit function, but they were unsure of how much to spend, and how best to organize the new department. In the beginning phases of our project, Paul gave me great access to several C-level managers within the MS Society, as well as board members, audit committee members, and external consultants. Naturally, everyone I talked to had different priorities and a slightly different vision for what the internal audit department should focus on, so Paul and I worked to aggregate that vision. Additionally, I wanted to look externally to see how effective internal audit departments were structured in the nonprofit industry, and was able to make serendipitous LinkedIn connections with the heads of internal audit at the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and Susan G. Komen Foundation.
After several months of meeting almost weekly with Paul and interviewing people via phone, my recommendation started to fully take form. There were several stakeholders who needed to buy in to our recommendation to invest $350K per year in a back-office function, so I had to present the idea on several occasions to parties including the entire executive management team and the chairman of the audit committee. My project culminated in a final presentation to the full audit committee, CEO, various board members, and the finance team. During the climax of the final presentation, I was happy to learn that the audit committee voted unanimously to move ahead with the idea of investing in an internal audit function.
This project gave me great insight into nonprofit board management, and I learned a lot about the nonprofit industry in general. First, the individuals working in the nonprofit sector are extremely talented. Admittedly, I had a bit of a bias that the nonprofit sector was for ‘do-gooders’ who were tired of the demands of working for a large for-profit entity. My interactions with employees of the MS Society quickly put this bias to rest—it was clear to me that the MS Society’s team was talented and, in many cases, their jobs were much harder due to the increased number of stakeholders they had to keep happy. Second, a nonprofit executive’s job is made much more difficult because the bottom line is not the ultimate measure of success. Prior to its reorganization, the MS Society had 50+ chapters throughout the nation, each with its own volunteer ‘audit chair’. After the consolidation of chapters, the MS Society had little use for many of these pro bono volunteers. As a result, the COO wanted me to look into ways to maintain these volunteers’ involvement in the newly formed internal audit department. After some external diligence, I came back to him with the suggestion that this would probably be more trouble than it was worth, and would not create much value. When I presented this to the full audit committee and executive management team, most agreed, except for Cyndi Zagieboylo, the CEO. Cyndi said that even though it may create a bit more work, she wanted to figure out a way to keep these volunteers involved in the organization. Volunteers are among the most important assets for any nonprofit, and straining relationships with these volunteers is contrary to the organization’s mission. For me, this was a very refreshing change of pace from the ‘profit-maximizing’ aims of most organizations, which all too often simply means downsizing.
By Joe Cosentino ’18