Gaining valuable experience from nonprofit boards

Amy Manning, a partner at McGuireWoods.
Amy Manning, a partner at McGuireWoods.  —Photo by Photo by David Durochik.
December 2011
Print friendly page

By Amanda Robert

Amy Manning remembers her first "Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes" event as the first time she felt like herself again after learning she had diabetes.

She points to this year's walk, and seeing McGuireWoods' sponsor banner, as another key moment.

"It meant so much to me — blending two parts of my life that I care about so much," she said.

Manning, a partner and member of the executive committee at McGuireWoods, joined the American Diabetes Association (ADA) event board for the annual "Kiss A Pig" fundraiser after receiving her diagnosis in 1998.

She then began planning and participating in other fundraisers and sharing her experience with people with diabetes and their families.

"The current statistics on diabetes are extremely sobering," she said. "For children born in 2000 and after, one in three of them will face diabetes in their lives. I have diabetes, so I care a lot about this cause, but I also have three children and I don't want any of them to have diabetes and have to worry about taking insulin."

A few years ago, Manning moved up to the ADA's Chicago Community Leadership Board. She helps oversee all major fundraising and event planning and plans to become the board chairwoman in January.

"Initially, because I am so busy, I really had to think about it," Manning said. "It was my husband who said, 'This is another thing to add to your schedule, but it will be so personally fulfilling to you. We'll make whatever adjustments we need to so you can do this.'

"He was absolutely right. Even just being in the chair-elect position, it's been such an incredibly good experience."

Like Manning, many lawyers look for opportunities to serve on nonprofit boards. They say they not only meet people who have similar interests, but also interact with people who have different perspectives and backgrounds. These experiences enrich their personal and professional lives, often leading to new relationships or business down the road.

These lawyers learn to make decisions and to communicate, skills that largely enhance their practice of law. They also help nonprofit groups by sharing their expertise in various legal areas and offering their experience with analytical thinking and networking.

Manning said she advises attorneys in her firm to get involved with nonprofit organizations as they progress in their careers.

"It just brings so much additional richness to your career," she said. "Even if there weren't any professional benefits, I would encourage people to do it because it's neat to have a part of your career that is about personal satisfaction.

"Lawyers have a real opportunity to do good in the world and they have an obligation to do so."

Taking up the cause

G.A. Finch started serving on nonprofit boards as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. As a member of the graduate school's governing council, he worked with deans and chairmen and chairwomen of different departments and gained a "bird's-eye view" of the university.

"I realized that people who serve on boards and committees are the ones who really drive so much of the decision-making and influence the outcomes for organizations, whether it's a university or whether it's a local PTA," he said.

G.A. Finch of Hoogendoorn and Talbot, who was co-chair for the Chicago Bar Foundation’s 2011 Fall Benefit in November, talked with Bob Glaves, executive director of the CBF, and attorney Kaarina Salovaara, president of the CBF,  at the fall event at the Field Museum.
G.A. Finch of Hoogendoorn and Talbot, who was co-chair for the Chicago Bar Foundation’s 2011 Fall Benefit in November, talked with Bob Glaves, executive director of the CBF, and attorney Kaarina Salovaara, president of the CBF, at the fall event at the Field Museum.
Photo by Ben Speckmann.

Finch, a partner at Hoogendoorn and Talbot, now serves as a member of the City Colleges of Chicago Community Advisory Council and as chairman of the Decatur Classical School Local School Council. In addition to his current role on three Chicago Bar Association-related boards, he formerly served as a board member for 10 other organizations. Nonprofit boards often choose members through their connections in the community, he said.

"There's someone on the board who knows you or has heard of you and they think you can bring something to the table — some skill set or some relationship or some perspective," Finch said. "After you get your first few boards and your legs underneath you, I think people have a tendency to gravitate toward certain kinds of boards."

Most boards of directors work to establish policy, he said. They focus on the recruitment, retention and evaluation of senior executives and help maintain the integrity and structure of their organizations. They also call on their professional and personal networks to raise funds for their organizations.

Lawyers who serve as board members often field legal questions from other board members as well as from the CEO of their organizations, Finch said. They give informal advice, and in situations without conflicts, their firms provide pro bono legal services to their organizations.

Vicki Hood, a partner and head of the employee benefits practice group at Kirkland & Ellis, got involved with the Goodman Theatre Board of Trustees in 1995.

Hammond Chaffettz, a senior partner in her firm, decided to step down after several years of service on the board. He wanted a colleague to take his place so the firm could continue to partner with the organization.

Hood, a Goodman subscriber, who enjoyed theater even as a child, jumped at the new opportunity, she said.

"Besides the point of me being thrilled that he asked me, the thought that this was something I was already interested in was perfect," she said. "It just fit."

As vice chairwoman of the Goodman board, Hood recently helped develop the theater's new strategic plan. She acts as a liaison between the staff and the board, making sure they communicate and meet their objectives. If she sees a disconnect between the two parties, she helps them return to "a good flow of information and ideas," she said.

She also takes her turn in chairing the theater's opening-night productions, she said.

"That's what you do when you move into a leadership role in an organization," Hood said. "You have to step up and take a leadership role in things that are important to the organization, whether it's the strategic plan or the opening night for the theater."

David Hilliard, senior partner and former managing partner at Pattishall McAuliffe Newbury Hilliard & Geraldson, began collecting art after serving in the Navy and spending time in Europe. He further developed his newfound interest by joining the Art Institute of Chicago's auxiliary board in 1977.

"I got involved because I was very interested in trying to help Chicago be a better place to live and visit and for companies to come here," Hilliard said. "It was a stepping stone to getting on the board where I could do more on that front."

He stepped up to the institute's board of trustees three years later, and since then, assisted with everything from planning exhibitions to acquiring prints for the museum.

As chairman of the board's architecture and design committee, he helps the museum locate architectural drawings and artifacts.

"Chicago is a very important design community," he said. "It was critical that the Art Institute represent that design community and begin acquiring those things … Your task is to help find the money and give them support, really make life work for them."

Thomas Cole, a partner and chairman of the executive committee at Sidley Austin, received an offer to join the Northwestern Memorial Healthcare board nearly 20 years ago. At the time, he often worked with J. Ira Harris, a prominent investment banker who sat on the nominating committee and deemed him an "up-and-comer," he said.

He accepted Harris' offer to join the board since newly elected President Bill Clinton chose health-care reform as one of his first agenda items, he said. He got involved in the professional standards committee, evaluating the quality of the hospital, assisting with problems with patients and overseeing the credentialing of physicians. He served as the committee's chairman for 12 years.

Four years ago, he became chairman of both the Northwestern Memorial Healthcare and Northwestern Memorial Hospital boards. He works with management and ensures other board members get the chance to exercise their oversight role, he said.

Cole, who commits 200 to 300 hours each year to the organizations, said he sees a parallel between medical institutions and law firms since they both operate as professional services operations.

"There is a lot of similarity, frankly, to my role in management at the law firm to say, what our CEO at the hospital does, in the sense that it's really a professional services organization where you have very highly trained, very skilled people doing important things," he said. "And so, that provides a sensitivity that I think has been useful. If I were a widget manufacturer, I might not be as sensitive to the people-management side of it."

Benefits to boards

Joe Tilson, founding partner and co-chairman of Meckler Bulger Tilson Marick & Pearson, joined the Leaning Tower YMCA of Metro Chicago when he moved to Edgebrook 22 years ago.

He started playing basketball on Saturdays, but soon learned that the YMCA's mission went well beyond a "gym and swim operation," he said. He saw that a high-caliber board of community leaders assisted the organization in providing diverse services to families.

Four years ago, Tilson joined the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago's board of managers, because he wanted to help his community. He now serves as co-chairman of the annual fundraising campaign.

"I believe that one of the benefits is the personal gratification that you get from doing good," he said. "When I leave one of my 7 a.m. meetings, and I'm heading into the office, I always feel a little more charged up.

"Another benefit is that it provides greater visibility for me and the firm in the community-at-large. I think it's important for me as the co-chair of the firm to lead by example."

Hood said her role on the Goodman Theatre Board of Trustees makes her a better person and a better citizen.

"In today's world, being a lawyer could consume basically every waking hour if you let it, and if you add that to whatever family obligations you have, you wouldn't do anything else with your life," she said.

In recent years, Hood learned not just about theater, but business, she said. She attends investment committee and strategic planning committee meetings and listens to discussions about the financial markets.

"To be knowledgeable about theater, to be knowledgeable about financial reports and investment projections and terms — that's something that's not just for cocktail parties," Hood said. "It makes conversations more interesting with clients and with your fellow lawyers."

As Finch became more involved in nonprofit boards, he established a broad and deep network of contacts and colleagues. He calls many of them to discuss legal, business or personal issues because of the relationships they developed through civic service, he said.

"Nothing really gets done, happens or occurs without relationships, whether it's business or civil and charitable pursuits," he said. "People help and do things for others based on personal human connections."

Finch said up-and-coming lawyers who engage in civic pursuits also have "a deeper and more diverse Rolodex" than many of their peers. They find that they accomplish more earlier in their careers, he said.

"They say there are six degrees of separations," he said. "People who serve on boards probably cut that by half, at least."

Lawyers become steeped in nonprofit law after providing pro bono counseling and advice to their organizations' boards, Finch said. They can later market their skills to other nonprofit organizations that need to pay for legal services, he said.

Hilliard said his experience with the Art Institute reflects "giving rather than taking, which is good for the soul." He avoids thinking of his service as career advancement and rarely receives clients from his role on the board.

Instead, Hilliard takes advantage of the ability to think about something other than law for a while, he said.

"It gives me great joy to leave my office and go someplace else, just to get away and have some way to clear my mind," he said. "I think throughout the city, lawyers are very active in this sort of thing. One of the reasons they are is because it lets you experience more of what real life is about."

As Manning considers her future role as chairwoman of the ADA's Chicago Community Leadership Board, she sees many ways in which lawyers benefit nonprofit organizations.

In her experience, they offer analytical skills and bring the "brass tacks, bottom-line thinking" that helps drive their boards. They also know how to budget and raise money, she said.

"Lawyers are good at saying, 'How can we bring together successful businesses with some of these organizations that need funding and support for the good of everybody?'" Manning said. "Lawyers are quite articulate, so they can be good at taking the goals of the cause and coming up with a well-articulated vision for a nonprofit board."

Tilson, who practices labor and employment law, contributes his professional skills to the YMCA by advising the organization in those areas. In the past, he served on the human resources and pension committees and on a task force that evaluated individual YMCA locations with financial trouble.

He recently agreed to spearhead the YMCA's annual fundraising campaign. He motivates other board members to personally contribute as well as encourage their friends to donate. He also brings his own network of contacts since he assists many companies with their legal matters, he said.

"It's specifically trying to mine contacts that various board members have at companies whose philanthropic mission in Chicago aligns with that of the Y, and trying to open doors and get our board members engaged in corporate fundraising," Tilson said.

Tilson said nonprofit organizations can also look to lawyers for help when acquiring real estate, hiring and firing employees or completing corporate transactions.

Cole avoids providing direct legal advice to Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, but helps his board perform proper oversight of the organization, he said. He knows how to ask the right questions, spot legal issues and involve general counsel or outside counsel when needed, he said.

"Because of our skills and training, we can really make a contribution," Cole said. "We should make a contribution. It shouldn't be because we think we're going to grab a lot of clients that way. It should be just for its own sake."

Practical advice

From Manning's perspective, it's never too early for first- and second-year associates to start serving on a nonprofit board.

She suggested they start small by joining a community board or neighborhood association, so they can begin developing new skills and relationships.

"You're learning how to run things because you have to, but then you get tapped to sit on the recruiting committee in your law firm," Manning said.

"All of those skills you already gained from learning how to run things, you bring to this new opportunity that you have within your firm."

Hood tells associates at Kirkland & Ellis to find a nonprofit organization that sparks their interest. For example, she said, if they enjoy theater or education, they should pick an organization that covers one of those areas.

She also recommended that associates first join a junior board. They can talk to the members, get to know the staff and ask questions before committing several years to an organization. Also, they can commit to a smaller financial contribution. She said most large boards require members to contribute $5,000 to $20,000 — a tough sell for lawyers who are just starting their careers.

Hood said associates who start on junior boards may find it easier to balance work responsibilities with civic activities. She learned to set priorities, so as her role with Goodman became more significant, she became more flexible.

"I go day-to-day or week-to-week," Hood said. "I do whatever seems to be the most important and I try to continually prioritize my time. I've tried not to be rigid because it just doesn't work.

"There is no doubt about it — if you take a leadership role in an organization, you should limit yourself to the number of organizations where you're going to do that."

Finch said lawyers should join an organization because they believe in its mission — not just because someone asked them to join that organization. He said he encourages them to do their due diligence, making sure the organization revolves around strong leaders and sound finances.

He said lawyers need to investigate the organization's ethics and conflicts of interest, so they don't join a board "where people are self-dealing."

They also need to choose an organization that provides sufficient directors and officers liability insurance and appropriate indemnification notifications.

"You don't just accept a board off the bat," Finch said. "You need to make sure that it's the kind of organization that you want to be associated with."

Finch said he sees an opportunity cost to serving on nonprofit boards. Lawyers who volunteer and attend board meetings are not spending time with their families or playing golf, they are taking a small number of free hours and devoting those to a bigger cause.

"It's important to one, show up, two, participate, and three, advocate on behalf of the organization," Finch said. "Just to go and say, 'I'm on the board and attend the meetings is not a wise use of one's time.'

"At some point, take on a leadership role, so that way you're adding real value to the organization rather than just being a passive talking head, sitting around a table."