What it’s like to serve on a board

I think all 230 attendees of Greenlights’ Board Summit learned a lot about opportunities to serve, but there was one panel discussion in particular that was especially enlightening – the “What’s it like to serve on a board?” session.

Yesenia Reyes was one of the three panelists, and she was generous enough to spend some time chatting with me after the discussion. Here’s a little bit about her:

Yesenia works in the human service practice at Accenture with special projects, and helps position Accenture’s presence at national and state/local conferences that relate to child welfare, child support, general welfare, and unemployment insurance topics. She also leads the community service efforts for Accenture’s Austin office.Prior to joining Accenture, Yesenia worked in executive leadership roles for nonprofits such as Catholic Charities of Dallas, the North Texas Food Bank, Wesley-Rankin Community Center, and White Rock United Methodist Church. Her practical and academic work focused on low-income, ethnic minority, under-served populations.

In the past thirteen years, Yesenia served on the boards of Women’s Council of Dallas County, Texas, the North Texas Food Bank, Catholic Charities of Dallas-Advisory Council, Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Dallas, Dental Health Programs, and Epilepsy Foundation of North Texas. She is a program graduate of Blueprint for Leadership, sponsored by the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, to educate and equip ethnic minority leaders for Board of Director participation.

Locally, Yesenia volunteers with the United Way Capital Area- Community Investment Review Team, Partnership for Children, and Meals on Wheels and More. Internationally, Yesenia volunteers with a Catholic Parish in El Progreso, Honduras.

I got a chance to ask Yesenia some questions about serving on a board. Her honesty and insights were surprising, at least to someone like me who has never served on a nonprofit board.

1. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about sitting on a board?

In the thirteen years I have spent on a board or recruiting board members, the biggest misconception I’ve encountered centers around the fundraising responsibility of board membership. What I heard and experienced was fear of the “give” or “get” quota and the fear of being asked to give a large donation.

While financial support is a reality of board responsibility, there are different ways of raising support for nonprofits. My own trepidation was eased by exploring my options with the board chair or executive director. Nonprofits need talent and support, not just dollars. There are creative ways of raising support. Do not hold off serving on a board because of money. It’s all negotiable; find out what is agreeable to you and to the organization.

Let me add this: I think we are anxious about the financial responsibility of board membership because we are fearful of being compared to the others who can give “more.” The first time I had to “give or get,” I put pen to paper to make a decision about how much I could give. I had to focus my giving and feel good that I had been fair to all of my financial obligations. I do not give to every request from the organizations I support or to the many requests received from friends and family.

Many people have a household budget, a saving plan, a retirement plan, an investment plan—why not create a giving plan?

2. You have a unique perspective in that you’ve been an executive director at a nonprofit as well as served on the board of a separate nonprofit. You’ve been on both sides of the professional/volunteer nonprofit relationship, and I think there can be some different viewpoints for each side. What do you wish each side knew about the other?

I wish there was greater awareness that businesses are making significant efforts to align their core competencies, their people, and their resources to impact the social well-being; and I wish that there was greater awareness of the discipline nonprofits implement to make certain that their societal impact can be measured, evaluated, and trusted.

At the end of the day, there is “heart” and “rigor” in all of us. What unites us is that each of us is trying to lend ourselves to the greater good.

3. Do you think it’s important for a board that serves a specific socio-economic or ethnic group to have someone from that group on their board?

I am a firm believer that everyone has something to give to the well-being of the community, and everyone should be invited to serve, no matter ethnicity or income level. There is a real moment exchange in this diversity.

I learned this lesson while serving as Executive Director of a community center that wanted to address children’s health issues, specifically obesity. We served mostly low-income Hispanic families who resided in a high crime neighborhood in Dallas. The recommendations we were reading as best practice included nutrition education, modeling good food choices, and physical activity.

As we started to design the physical activity component of the program I turned to the parents, three of whom were also on the board, for their input. The truth was that in this neighborhood the recommendations for community-based physical activity (walking, riding bicycles, sports teams) were not so practical. This neighborhood had high gang activity, so walking or riding bikes were safety concerns. Bikes disappeared from front lawns at the blink of an eye. Sports teams were expensive for these families. The neighborhood park was strewn with drug paraphernalia and had no field lights for evening activity. The discussion of these obstacles was a revelation to most our board members. The insight of members who lived in the neighborhood helped us design a program that was relevant to the community.

To affect childhood obesity, this board needed all the knowledge we had from experts and all that we could borrow from the local experience. Members of the board who knew how to deal with City Hall taught a group of neighborhood residents how to go to City Council meetings to petition for the park lights (this was a city park). It took more than a year to get approved and funded, but the city did install park lights. The board secured funding to buy sports equipment to be kept at the community center. We held family nights that included a healthy meal and softball or basketball games. The after-school program incorporated jump rope, tag, basketball and volleyball— activities that could be done in the gymnasium on our property.

This board did have a “give or get” practice: These moms and other neighborhood parents made tamales each holiday season to raise money to support the children’s after-school program; they stuffed invitations to the annual fundraising event; they sent in their donation to the annual appeal letter. We all have something to give!

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