MBAs Lend Their Skills to Nonprofit Boards

Ryan Bell first became passionate about helping young children while serving as a major in the army in Iraq, helping local Iraqis rebuild bombed-out schools, obtain textbooks, and get windows and electricity for their new buildings. When he arrived at Columbia Business School in the fall of 2010 for orientation, he wanted to continue his work with youth, a goal made attainable when he was accepted to Columbia’s Nonprofit Board Leadership Program, which pairs 30 MBA students each year with a local nonprofit board in the New York area.

Bell was assigned to serve on the board of Friends of the Children New York, an early intervention program in West Harlem that pairs at-risk children with mentors. In addition to attending board meetings, he assisted the board’s fundraising committee and quickly set about analyzing the nonprofit’s five-year strategic plan. By the end of his one-year term, he’d come up with a new evaluation system that helped the board use better metrics and comparative data for analyzing students’ progress, a change that ultimately resulted in the nonprofit getting $275,000 in additional funding, he says. For Bell, the experience has been a game changer, one that has cemented his desire to work with nonprofit boards in the future, he says.

“It was awesome, because I got inside access to how the organization works and was able to sit down with the decision makers and provide input,” says Bell, who is continuing his work with the organization as a member of Friends of the Children’s new junior board, which he co-founded with a Columbia alum. “I wasn’t an outsider, but I felt like a member of the team.”


Programs like the one Bell participated in, known as Board Fellows, are becoming increasingly common on business school campuses throughout the country. The initiatives are a way to get young people—a demographic that most nonprofit boards have trouble connecting with—involved with boards at an early stage in their careers. On average, only six percent of nonprofit boards have members under the age of 35, according to a 2008 Urban Institute study of nonprofits with annual expenses between $500,000 and $5 million.

That could change as more MBA students, whose average age hovers around 27 or 28, embrace the idea of working with a board while in school, says Liz Maw, executive director of Net Impact, a nonprofit for sustainability-minded student leaders and professionals. Net Impact launched a Board Fellows Initiative in 2007 to encourage more of its chapters to introduce programs that partner students with local nonprofits, and so far, MBA students seem to be up for the challenge, Maw says. In 2009, 30 MBA Net Impact chapters introduced Board Fellows programs, and in 2010, that number crept up to 49.

The increase comes as a growing number of MBA programs are placing an increased emphasis on corporate social responsibility in the curriculum. In 2011, for example, 79 percent of schools required students to take a course dedicated to business and society issues, according to the Aspen Institute’s most recent Beyond Grey Pinstripes Survey, a biennial ranking of business schools. At the same time, students are looking to get more hands-on experience that allows them to work with organizations that advance social causes, Maw says. Board Fellows programs provide just that; almost all require students to do a project that utilizes their business skills and helps the board operate more effectively. For instance, fellows perform board effectiveness audits, examine the organization’s donor base and fund-raising efforts, and help them come up with marketing and social media plans.

“MBA programs have really been stepping up two different areas during the last two years, social impact course work and experiential projects,” Maw says. “If you put those two together, the board fellows program is a perfect match.”


The programs have become so popular that some prospective MBA students shopping for schools now specifically seek out schools with Board Fellows initiatives. Mathew Paisner, a second-year MBA student, sought out schools with Board Fellows programs but ultimately settled on Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business, which was just forming one when he arrived in the fall of 2010. He quickly joined forces with another student and Babson’s Lewis Institute for Social Innovation, becoming one of the initial founding members of the school’s Board Fellows pilot program. He now serves as the group’s student director and has helped the group, run out of Babson’s Net Impact chapter, forge relationships with Boston-area nonprofits such as the Charles River Center and the Special Olympics of Massachusetts. In its pilot year, the program received 30 to 40 applications for 10 board openings, and this year the group received 50 to 60 applications for 13 slots, Paisner says.

“It was very competitive because students are excited about getting involved in something like this, especially ones who want to work for a nonprofit or sit as a nonprofit board member in the future,” says Paisner. “It is a great way to use their MBA skills for giving back.”

The first MBA Board Fellows program was started at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1997 by a group of six students, and more schools followed suit in the early 2000s, including University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, another early adopter, launched its Board Fellows program in 2005 in response to demand from students taking a class in nonprofit management. Since the program was launched, 179 Tuck students have served as board members, working with 23 nonprofits in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley region, says Patricia Palmiotto, executive director of Tuck’s Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship, which oversees the program.

This year, 24 students are participating in the program, including Kathleen O’Leary, a second-year MBA who is one of two Tuck students working with WISE, a nonprofit that provides support to stalking victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“In addition to being very fulfilling in and of itself, I see it being a training ground for me for future board involvement,” O’Leary says.


Tuck’s program has been so successful that in 2007, the Allwin Initiative published an 82-page “Board Fellows Manual” detailing how students and schools can go about setting up such a program, how to recruit nonprofits, and the types of roles students should play. The manual has become a bible of sorts for schools thinking of starting their own program, and it is distributed to all interested Net Impact chapters as an example of best practices, Maw says.

One of the guide’s recommendations is that a nonprofit board member step up to mentor a student fellow. The board member can become an advocate for the student among other board members, familiarize her with the board’s mission and goals, and help her find a project to work on. Columbia’s nonprofit board program, launched six years ago, does just that, pairing students with alumni mentors who serve on nonprofit boards in the New York area, says Sandi Wright, director of the program.

Tess Mateo, a 1997 Columbia EMBA graduate who serves on several nonprofit boards, has served as a mentor with the program since it started, bringing students onto the boards of New York’s American Composers Orchestra, the Global Summit of Women, and most recently the U.N. Foundation’s Girls Up Campaign. Her connection with the students she’s worked with has lasted beyond their time in the program, and she has even recommended some of her past mentees for spots on boards when she hears of openings.

“I thought, wow, what an amazing opportunity if I get these young women into the pipeline for boards,” Mateo says. “This gives them an opportunity and exposure that you usually can’t get at their age.”

( Corrects name of Aspen Institute survey in sixth paragraph. )
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