Johnson Board Fellows:
Ithaca-area non-profits benefit from MBA expertise
After producing plays in downtown Ithaca for 20 years, the Kitchen Theatre Company was at a crossroads. Having raised $1.2 million to renovate a building on West State Street, the theater’s management now needed to determine how to shape its season and expand its audience: How many performances could the theater afford to produce annually in its new facility? And how could it attract a younger demographic to its plays?
With a staff of six, these issues might have been relegated to the backburner as the theater moved into its season of 150 performances. But two Johnson students who began serving on the theater’s board of directors last fall offered to develop a marketing plan targeting Cornell students and create a computerized financial model to analyze the non-profit’s revenues and expenses.
“We ended up with a fantastic spreadsheet that allows us to plug in different scenarios and look at some things we wouldn’t have been able to do without a lot of math on our part,” says Rachel Lampert, the theater’s artistic director. And with a new $11 student rush ticket, sold at a discounted price the night of the performance, Lampert believes the theater also made some inroads in reaching a younger audience.
Brianna Tufts and Matt Orton, both MBA ’11, volunteered for the Kitchen Theatre’s board this year as members of the Johnson Board Fellowship (JBF), a three-year-old leadership program aimed at introducing second-year MBA students to the non-profit world. Completely run by Johnson students, the initiative placed 16 Johnson students on the boards of eight non-profits in the Ithaca area this year.
For Tufts, the program was a key factor in her decision to consider Johnson. Having volunteered with the Special Olympics during middle school and with a mentoring program at Colby College, Tufts researched which business schools offered opportunities for students to serve on non-profit boards. “As soon as I learned about the JBF program, I applied because it fit in with my long-term goals.” Tufts, who seeks a career in finance in the renewable energy field, plans to continue her involvement in community service after she completes her MBA.
While Johnson offers many leadership programs, JBF was designed to offer students an opportunity to develop leadership skills in the community, says Risa Mish, senior lecturer and director of the Leadership Skills Program, who launched the initiative with two Park Fellows in 2008. “I wanted an experiential leadership opportunity that was more external-facing,” says Mish, who has served on several non-profit boards in Ithaca, including the Kitchen Theatre.
From her own board experience, Mish knew that placing MBA students on non-profit boards would add a desirable skill set that complements the expertise many non-profit professionals have. “There are so many skilled and passionate people working in non-profits,” Mish says. “Because it tends to be less common, however, for non-profit staffs to include MBAs, one effective way to add their skills to the mix is by having MBAs serve on organization boards of directors.”
At the Franziska Racker Centers, an agency serving the disabled in Tompkins, Cortland and Tioga counties, Ari Webber, MBA ’11, used his training in asset management to develop a financial model that would allow the organization to analyze its investment portfolio. At a meeting of the board’s investment committee in April, Webber demonstrated how his computer model could help the board ask more informed questions of its financial managers, Tompkins Financial Advisors.
After guiding the committee through the model, Webber explained that the spreadsheet could disaggregate whether investment swings resulted from security selection or asset allocation. “Looking through all the performance data, where are these returns coming from?” he asked. “How much return is generated by them choosing stocks?”
At the close of the meeting, the committee instructed Daniel Brown, MBA’82, the agency’s associate executive director, to use the model to evaluate investment decisions made by its financial managers. “We’ll be better informed in terms of being able to ask better questions, because we’ll have better data,” Brown says.
Melissa Peddicord, MBA ’11, addressed a more basic problem when she began serving on the board of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier last fall. After several board members said they could not understand the agency’s financial statements, Peddicord developed and presented a workshop to teach new board members how to read the reports.
While the technical aspects of evaluating the financial reports weren’t new to her, Peddicord says what was eye-opening about her board tenure was learning a new set of communication skills. “How to get buy-in for some of the recommendations that you have and how to have your voice heard has been the biggest learning experience that I’ve had,” she says. “It’s not just what technical skills that you bring to the table that are going to make you an effective member of the board. You have to be able to present in a way that people understand where you’re coming from.”
Besides Peddicord’s workshop, another student who served on the food bank’s board, Roland Foss, MBA ’11, worked with the marketing department to create a set of recommendations that will guide usage of the non-profit’s new logo for its written and electronic communications.
Natasha Thompson, the president and chief executive officer of the food bank, says the benefits of JBF go beyond the individual projects the students accomplished. “I think it’s a great program,” she says. “I think it’s important for business students to have that experience serving their community in a very tangible way, in a way that they can share their strengths and have an impact.”
Another benefit for the non-profit agencies is the opportunity to infuse their boards with younger members, who may offer a different perspective on issues the agencies are addressing. Brown, for example, is already planning a project for next year’s Johnson fellows: an evaluation of the Racker Centers’ use of social media, including its Facebook page. “We’re hoping they will do an analysis for us in terms of what they would perceive to be the best way to approach it.”
As JBF has evolved, it has become increasingly popular among students who want to serve the community and gain experience on a non-profit board. This spring, the program, which now offers leadership skills practicum credits, received 21 percent more applicants than in 2010. As a result, the student board running the program accepted a larger class of 19 fellows and plans to add at least one more non-profit organization for next fall.
“The program is growing, but we’re trying to grow smart,” says Ingrid Jensen, MBA ’12, JBF’s executive director for 2011-12. “There’s a tremendous amount of interest in the program at Johnson. It’s rapidly become one of the premier leadership programs.”
As this year’s graduating fellows move on to positions at banks, hedge funds and consulting firms, they will carry their JBF experience with them. “No matter what I do, I want to be sitting on a board for a non-profit somewhere,” says Webber, who plans to work at a hedge fund. “This is something I’m truly passionate about because it’s going to help me give back.”