Volunteer boards of directors are the heart and soul of hundreds of nonprofit agencies and charitable groups in Pierce County. But many boards struggle to find young, diverse, informed volunteers to keep their missions alive.
Now, two colleagues at UW Tacoma’s Milgard School of Business are changing that, one class at a time. Jill Purdy, associate professor at the Milgard School, and Joe Lawless, executive director of the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility, are the 2014 recipients of UW Tacoma’s Community Engagement Award for their efforts to turn students into informed, effective volunteer board members.
The idea hatched long before Purdy and Lawless began working together. As executive director of the Mary Bridge Children’s Foundation, and later as director of corporate partnerships for Tacoma Goodwill Industries, Lawless discovered how hard it was to recruit young people to serve on his governing boards. In addition, new board members who joined the groups were often unprepared for the amount of work and knowledge required to serve as an effective member of an official governing body.
After Lawless, a 2007 alumnus of the Milgard School’s MBA program, was hired to launch the new Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility, a simple conversation with Purdy sparked the plan.
“I remember where we were standing when the idea hit me,” he said. “I said to Jill, ‘Now I can push younger people out into the community to experience being board members.’ And Jill said, ‘If we don’t offer it for credit, they won’t do it.’”
Like that, their ambitious plan – to offer classes in governance that would bring educated young people into the fold – was born. Purdy and Lawless hope that the eventual result is that more Pierce County nonprofit agencies will have boards with multi-generational and multicultural representation and a good understanding of what being a volunteer board member really means.
“It can be hard for anyone to understand the complex dynamics of how people work together to make decisions,” Purdy says. “Board members must take on fiduciary responsibility and be accountable to the community and the public, and not all boards fully understand their governance responsibilities.”
Since Winter Quarter of 2009, Purdy and Lawless have led two courses, Board Governance I and II. Students in their courses serve as interns on local nonprofit boards that match their expertise and interests and spend time in the classroom learning how to be effective board members. The classes are open to students in all disciplines.
UW Tacoma is the only university in the country to offer a course combining board internship experience with classroom studies, Lawless says.
“An internship program is great, but it’s so much better to be teaching and talking about it too,” he says.
Students take the courses as a series over two quarters. The first class, led by Lawless, is light on curriculum, giving the students a chance to get matched up to a local nonprofit board and spend time attending and observing meetings while they learn about their agency. By the time they get to the second course, they have enough experience to engage with Purdy’s curriculum on theories and practice of governance.
“The goal is to get them right out there in the first quarter so they understand what it’s like to serve on a board,” Purdy says. “Then they come to the second quarter with grounded experience and they understand the context of what we’re teaching.”
In addition to learning the ins and outs of serving on a board, the students research their nonprofit and submit a report highlighting key issues for their board and identifying ideas for improvement. Sometimes they see immediate results: One student’s analysis led to a strategic shift at a food bank that helped the agency incorporate a broader set of health services. Another student’s assessment alerted a nonprofit board to a potential financial crisis. A handful of students have gone on to join local boards soon after graduation.
In all, more than 100 students have worked with about 70 agencies since the classes were launched five years ago. Many of Tacoma’s most visible nonprofits – from the Tacoma Art Museum and United Way to Goodwill and the American Red Cross – have been involved since the beginning.
“Nonprofits cannot thrive unless they invest in building their own capabilities so they have the capacity to serve efficiently and effectively,” Purdy and Lawless wrote in a statement supporting their nomination for the award. “The Board Governance classes are building a cadre of community members, UWT graduates, who are willing and able to be of service to nonprofits in their communities.”
The Community Engagement Award was established in 2013 to honor innovative, community-based work by UW Tacoma faculty that mutually benefits the university, students and partners in the community.
John Burkhardt, media relations, email@example.com or 253-692-4536