Connecting MBAs to the Community

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Monday, November 22, 2021
By Molly Anderson, Carrie Gardner
Photo by iStock/fizkes

When MBAs are invited to serve on nonprofit boards, communities benefit from an influx of fresh ideas and students see the link between leadership and service.

Whether driven by the expense of obtaining an MBA degree or their own ambitions, many MBA students historically have been focused solely on landing high-paying jobs in the for-profit sector. Increasingly, however, students at the University at Buffalo School of Management in New York have expressed the sincere desire to make a positive impact in their communities and on the world. Many are driven to address such pervasive issues as discrimination, mental health, poverty, and climate change.

To help students fulfill their goals to make a difference, we developed the Nonprofit Board Fellowship (NBF)—a yearlong program that connects MBAs to critical community resources. The NBF curriculum blends foundational training in board leadership and governance with discussions with community leaders on the concepts of diversity, inclusion, and servant leadership.

Our fellows also have opportunities to serve in nonvoting roles on local nonprofit boards. Through this work, they learn firsthand how to apply the rules of board governance while solving complex issues related to the empowerment and development of community.

The NBF is designed to develop leaders capable of empathy, healing, awareness, and stewardship—concepts present in the disruptive servant leadership theory of Robert K. Greenleaf. In 1970, Greenleaf proposed that great leaders are seen as servants first. He also emphasized the importance of sharing power in decision making, a concept that might initially feel contradictory to budding C-suite executives.

Greenleaf’s vision of leadership is a foundation of the NBF program. By connecting MBAs to nonprofit boards that support a variety of populations and communities, we grow students’ potential to serve. As they become more aware of the work nonprofits do, they become better able to see the link between leadership and service to others. They also learn that, inevitably, the well-being of the community is one reflection of a nonprofit’s work—and that any board is only as effective as the nonprofit it serves.

Building Meaningful Experiences

The two of us act as facilitators for the NBF program. To inform its design, we first conducted an audit of similar programs at other universities. We also consulted with others who had explored similar experiences for students, as well as industry experts. But just before we were to launch the program for the 2020–21 academic year, the pandemic hit.

At that time, we were met with some criticism from colleagues. Some thought it would be difficult to administer the program during the pandemic; others felt it would be insensitive to ask nonprofits to work with our MBAs during a time when many of them were struggling to reconfigure their services and having to cancel their large-scale fundraising events. But luckily, we were able to find organizations whose leaders immediately saw the value of having MBA students on their boards.

We partnered with BoardSTRONG, a subsidiary of the New York Council of Nonprofits, to identify effective boards in our local area. We then kept our initial NBF cohort small—we partnered with 10 local nonprofits and identified 10 MBA fellows to place at those locations.

As it turned out, our launch of the fellowship program coincided with a point in the pandemic when other opportunities for our students were being canceled or postponed. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, the NBF provided an opportunity for our MBA students to practice and nurture leadership development on local boards in real time and through tough circumstances. Our fellows learned from some of the most influential leaders in our community as these leaders navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic and a period of social change. 

Our fellows learned from some of the most influential leaders in our community as these leaders navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic and a period of social change.

By attending board meetings, fellows observed and experienced the unique dynamics among members—their varying communication styles, priorities, politics, and personal beliefs. Fellows also watched as board members shared ideas, solved problems, and built consensus. Fellows typically served on at least one committee, which helped them better understand how board decisions impact committee strategy and implementation.

Mentorship was another critical aspect of the program. Experienced board members and nonprofit CEOs took time to share with our students what was happening to their organizations and why. It’s important to emphasize that none of the participating nonprofits viewed our MBA fellows as interns—students were in the room when important decisions were being made and encouraged to voice their opinions.

Lessons Learned

During the program’s first year, we learned how important it was to match students to nonprofits based on their availability, not just their interests. MBA students have full schedules and need to clearly communicate what they can and can’t do, just like other board members. Virtual meetings—which have become nearly universal since COVID-19 hit—have helped overall participation. 

We also discovered that students were a bit intimidated by the concept of board service at first. They had misconceptions of what it took to serve on a board—they thought board members needed to be executives or have certain levels of power and influence. For that reason, they did not believe they had enough to offer a nonprofit organization.

To counter this challenge, we asked students to complete an immersive weeklong foundational course just before the start of their board service. During this week, students engaged with faculty and community leaders on topics such as servant leadership, board governance, fiduciary responsibilities of boards, and diversity and inclusion. In addition, students participated in daily exercises in which they reflected on the skills and knowledge they could bring to board service. We continued those reflection sessions monthly throughout the fellows’ year of board service.

Throughout the course, we encouraged students to think about themselves in light of their strengths and positive qualities. We also reinforced the idea that these boards truly valued their input and wanted them there—otherwise these organizations would not have signed up for the program. Our role was to nurture the connections between students’ professional skills and competencies, the requirements of board governance, and the concept of servant leadership.

Many boards were missing members with specific technical, financial, or statistical knowledge. This was where our MBAs made a real difference.

In addition, we held discussions with participating board members, where one of the most notable things we learned was that many boards were missing members with specific technical, financial, or statistical knowledge. This was where our MBAs made a real difference.

For example, one of our fellows developed a Qualtrics survey to assess board members’ perspectives on the organization’s core values, mission, and vision statement; another helped an organization revise its bylaws. The local United Way placed one of our fellows on a committee where he was able to apply his research and data management skills, while the Service Collaborative asked its fellow to assist with operations, fundraising, inventory, and pricing related to its Beds for Buffalo initiative. 

Badge of Service

We now have a waiting list of nonprofit organizations that would like to participate in next year’s NBF program. Our goal is to open the program up to a larger number of students, with the possibility of expanding its eligibility requirements to include students from our School of Law.

In addition, we are developing a microcredential related to nonprofit board leadership, as part of the university’s larger microcredentialing program. Students who earn this digital badge can include it in their social media profiles, digital résumés, and e-portfolios to showcase their newly acquired skills and increase their marketability. Potential employers can click on the badge to see the criteria for earning the credential, as well as evidence of the learner’s knowledge of board leadership.

But even more important than offering a path to a marketable credential, the NBF program gives students an opportunity to expand their capabilities and connect to a larger purpose. Through the Nonprofit Board Fellowship, we are not just adding a seat to the table—we are making the table bigger so that we can invite others to participate. 

The ‘Heart Roots’ of the Community

Like trees, strong communities have a diverse root system. When a tree grows, its strongest roots are known as “heart roots.” They anchor the tree to the ground while also sending out smaller, secondary roots to gather the water and nutrients necessary to produce colorful leaves and fruits.

We believe heart roots provide an apt metaphor to describe our NBF program. Nonprofit organizations build their strengths through an anchor group of diverse board members who reflect the populations they serve. But many organizations can find it challenging to recruit new board members, which can leave their boards understaffed, uniform, or stagnant. MBA students can add their fresh ideas, unique perspectives, and newly acquired knowledge into the board collective.

This year’s student fellows modeled the change we want to see in organizations. They brought a deep understanding of leadership concepts and principles, the humility of servant leaders, and a passion for racial equity and inclusion to the boards on which they served. Even if our fellows do not pursue careers in the nonprofit sector, we know that they will bring principles of servant leadership to the for-profit sector, contributing not only to the success of their organizations, but also to the health and well-being of the global workforce. 

The whole experience opened students’ minds to the role of business and leadership in the nonprofit sector—and, on a more meaningful level, to the ways they can use their MBAs to serve a cause.

Molly Anderson
Executive Director, Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness, University at Buffalo School of Management
Carrie Gardner
Director of Internships and Experiential Learning, University at Buffalo School of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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