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Board Feat

WNEU Program Introduces Young People to the Nonprofit Realm

Julie Siciliano

Julie Siciliano says the board intern program has injected youth into area institutions, while opening students’ eyes to the world of community service.

Julie Siciliano says that things tend to move slowly in the world of academia, especially when it comes to the process of taking concepts for new learning initiatives from the drawing board to the classroom — in whatever form it may take.
There is a great deal of due diligence involved in such matters, noted Siciliano, dean of the College of Business at Western New England University, adding that at her school — and across higher education in general — building consensus on if, when, and how to proceed with new ideas can often be a time-consuming proposition.
Such was not the case, however, with a relatively new course of study at WNEU — the so-called “nonprofit-board-internship” program. As the name suggests, the for-credit initiative places students on the boards of area nonprofits — the YMCA of Greater Springfield, the Pioneer Valley Chapter of American Red Cross, and the Springfield Boys & Girls Club were early participants — and gives them full voting privileges.
First suggested by College of Business adjunct faculty member Gerry Fitzgerald in early 2008, the program was ready to be implemented for the next semester, a much quicker pace than is generally the rule with such matters.
“That’s because everyone could see early on that this was going to be a real win-win,” said Siciliano. “It was going to be a win for the nonprofits, and a win for the students taking part; the organizations would get an injection of youth on their boards, and the students would gain an appreciation for the important work these nonprofits do — and become involved in that work.”
And just three years in, it’s apparent that this optimism, not to mention those fast-tracking efforts, were well warranted.
Tashia Kay

Tashia Kay says her time spent on the board of the Springfield Boys & Girls Club provided a number of learning experiences.

Consider these comments from Tashia Kay, who spent a year on the board of the Boys & Girls Club, as exhibit A: “It was great to be part of an organization that was passionate about the kids and the community, and not just focused on money and profits,” she said, drawing a distinction between what she saw in her Business classes and what she observed on the board. “I was very lucky to be part of the board for the seven months I was there.”
As for input on the nonprofit side, Rick Lee, director of the Pioneer Valley chapter of the Red Cross, was among the many who went into the program with optimism and high expectations. But even with all that, he remembers being pleasantly surprised, not by the many ways his organization has benefitted — he fully anticipated that an infusion of youth would become a real asset — but how the participating students gained confidence he could see and hear as the year went on.
Rick Lee, director of the Pioneer Valley chapter of American Red Cross

Rick Lee, director of the Pioneer Valley chapter of American Red Cross, says the board intern program has helped introduce young people to career possibilities in the nonprofit realm.

“While these young people have certainly made some contributions to our organization and helped to move things forward, I also saw in the time each one of them was with us, progress in their own personal development that was just as gratifying and just as important,” he explained. “They brought youth to the discussion and different viewpoints, and over the course of their year gained a great deal of confidence and ability to express opinions and back up what they were saying.”
Beyond this development professionally, there are many other benefits to be derived from this program, said Lee, especially the ability to introduce young people to the realm of nonprofit management and perhaps inspire them to make this a career.
“As someone who has been in nonprofit work for more than 30 years now, I’ve always been aware of how important it is to attract young people to the kind of work we’re in,” he said. “Whether it’s attracting them as a paid staffer in the future, or, as we’re trying to do here, getting them to think about their role as a leader so they may choose a different career path — as a leader in a nonprofit organization when they’re a young professional, not just when they’re in their  ’40s.”
This is exactly what has happened with Diane Garcia, a business major who graduated in 2009 and took part in the pilot program that launched the nonprofit-board initiative. She said her experiences with the YMCA of Greater Springfield definitely helped determine her career course, which has taken her into the nonprofit realm in a few different ways.
Indeed, upon graduating from WNEU, she accepted an Americorps Vista position in the National Development Office of Jumpstart in Boston. And today, she works for Boston-based Commongood Careers, an executive search firm that specializes in finding top-level managers for nonprofits.
“My position at the YMCA really jump-started me into thinking about going that route,” she said, adding that she didn’t arrive at WNECU’s business school thinking about working for nonprofits, but her role on the board definitely widened her scope of thinking.

Seats at the Table
Garcia admits that she’s not a big baseball fan. She can’t recall, for example, which member of the Red Sox organization took the podium as keynote speaker for the YMCA’s huge spring fundraising breakfast in 2009 (it was knuckleballer Tim Wakefield).
What she does remember, however, is all the hours she spent helping to plan the event and then work it. Specifically, she recalls the teamwork necessary to pull off such a happening, and the satisfaction that comes when it is staged successfully.
“It was a lot of work, and it was interesting to see how it all came together,” she said. “Working on the event gave you an appreciation for the organization and the role it plays in the community.”
This is what Fitzgerald, Siciliano and others at WNEU had in mind when they blueprinted the nonprofit-board program. They wanted to create learning environments that would accomplish a number of goals — everything from giving students confidence-building experiences, to opening their eyes to the intriguing world of nonprofit management, to injecting youth onto those boards.
The program is still a work in progress, but most believe that to say it is accomplishing those goals would be an understatement.
Here’s how it works: Students in Business, Management, and Accounting are encouraged to apply for the internships, said Siciliano, adding that many are actually recruited by faculty members. There are a few prerequisites — a 3.0 grade point average, for example — but mostly, faculty and administrators are looking for individuals with leadership skills and an interest in serving the community.
Meanwhile, they are also recruiting nonprofits on which students can serve, organizations that, first and foremost, are open to the idea of a 21-year-old sitting on their board with full voting privileges (some are not) and that can offer those valuable learning experiences mentioned earlier.
It’s all part of a comprehensive matching process, said Siciliano, adding that from the beginning, the school has worked to create solid fits that maximize the experience for both parties.
And for this coming year, the school has created five such matches, involving the YMCA, Boys Club, Red Cross, United Way, and Dress for Success. The individual experiences will be different, said Siciliano, but there are important common denominators — especially opportunities to learn and participate.
And both of these qualities come in a number of varieties, said Gary McCarthy, executive director of the Springfield Boys & Girls Club. He noted that his organization has nearly two dozen board members, but even within that large group, the WNEU students who have served on that body have managed to stand out and make notable contributions.
“We found that the young people from Western New England were very committed to the process,” he said. “They were very vocal, and when they were passionate about something they definitely spoke up and put in their 2 cents and their recommendations on things.”
He specifically recalls them being active in efforts to engage the large alumni base.
“They were involved with some others in getting a Facebook page up and staging reunions,” he recalled. “They also got engaged in our fundraising events, like the Festival of Trees, and so they learned about the many aspects of putting on large events, like recruiting volunteers and public relations work, but they were also there on the front lines and doing the work.”
Meanwhile, the students also helped build stronger bridges between the club and the college, creating more connections in matters such as mentoring, he said, adding the organization has had student board members from both WNEC and UMass Amherst, and has forged stronger relationships with both institutions through those programs.

Votes of Confidence
Kay remembers all the work that went into the Festival of Trees, the hugely popular program in which businesses, institutions, and area families donate decorated trees, which are then raffled off, with the proceeds supporting club programs.
“I got to take part in the planning and behind-the-scenes work,” she explained, “but I really had no idea just how big this was and how many companies got involved to help the club. The day of the event, I was running around, helping everyone put trees together, getting the electricity going, making sure there was enough room for everyone, working on the premiere party, selling raffle tickets … and it was great to see what everyone was working so hard for.”
What she remembers more from her year on the board, though, was taking part in key votes on a proposal to merge the agency with another Boys & Girls Club, a concept that was eventually rejected.
“I got to be part of that decision, which was a real learning experience,” she recalled. “There was a feasibility study to determine if it was beneficial for us to move forward with the merger, and in the end, we decided that it just didn’t make sense to do it.
“Each club gets grant money, and if there was a merger, there would be one entity, and less money to go around,” she continued. “Taking part in that important vote was a real experience for me.”
Other participants in the program have had the opportunity to become involved with similarly important decisions and the research that goes into them.
Indeed, Lee told BusinessWest that the injection of youth to his board has come at a time of what he called “watershed change” for the Red Cross, and the interns have added tremendously to the dialogue.
“It began three years ago, and it has escalated over the past 11 months,” he said of the fast-paced evolutionary process. “It has literally changed the way chapter borders are defined, and changed the roles of staff members and board members; it has upset a number of apple carts as we try, to extend the analogy, and restack the fruit for the 21st century.
“And having young people be part of those discussions has helped with the breadth of the discussions we’ve had,” he continued, “and brought some different perspective to the conversation.”
Lee and other nonprofit managers we spoke with expressed the hope that the students’ experiences would inspire them to continue their involvement with nonprofits after they left the respective boardroom — and the college. And the reality is that many of them are.
Kay, for example, said she does a lot of work with nonprofits as a part-time accountant with Nicholas Lapier, CPA, and is confident that wherever her career takes her she will make time to get involved in the community.
Meanwhile, Garcia said her work with Jumpstart, as well as her current position with Commongood are reflections of her desire to make work within the community part of her career portfolio.
“I really enjoy working at Commongood,” she explained, “ because it’s a combination of the two things I love the most — working with nonprofits and HR and recruiting, which I developed an interest in while I was in college. This is perfectly in the intersection of the two.”
Her sentiments about nonprofits are reflected in the comments she offered for a piece in the spring-summer edition of the newsletter for the School of Business: “My internship on the board of the YMCA opened my eyes to a whole different idea of what business can be,” she said, “and how my skills can really serve others.”

The Bottom Line
Tom Marsh will be among the students serving on boards starting this September. His assignment is with the YMCA, and he’s hoping to take his experiences in sports and fundraising — he founded the club soccer program at WNEU, which involves both — and his desire to get involved in the community, and make them the basis for what he believes will be a memorable learning experience.
“I’m really excited about the prospects of getting a real-world experience and seeing how decisions are made and ideas arise,” he said when asked about his upcoming stint on the Y board. “I’m just hoping that I can contribute to the process and learn things I can take with me on my career path.”
Those who have done this before him would say he’ll accomplish all that and much more.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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