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Advice for Women Leaders: How Board Members Are Chosen

Women on Corporate and Nonprofit Boards: Lessons from their Experiences

On February 18, 2020 the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women, the Penn Club of LA, and the Wharton Club of Southern California held an evening career program called, “Women on Corporate and Nonprofit Boards: Lessons from their Experiences.”  Santa Monica Community College graciously hosted the group in the new Student Services Building at 1900 Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica.

Panelists armed the audience with practical information about becoming board members, both at nonprofits and corporations. Approximately fifty men and women attended.  By a show of hands, many are already serving on boards, typically nonprofits.

As of 2018, women directors made up 22.5% of the S&P 500 U.S. Public Companies and 16.4% of the Russell 3000.  Among 200 U.S. Venture-backed Private Companies, 7% of directors were female.  Since these boards have a small number of seats, relatively few opportunities arise each year to bring on new members. The S&P median board size is 12. Russell 3000 is nine, and 200 U.S. Venture backed is seven.

The all-star panel brought together considerable experience in both corporate and nonprofit boards.  Each panelist currently serves on multiple boards, as members and chairs:

  • Lynn Jerath, Wharton 1995 President of Citrine Investment Group.  Lynn is based in Chicago and flew in for this event.
  • Julie Beren Platt, Penn 1979, Chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
  • Sonya Sepahaban, Cornell 1982, CEO of OurOffice Inc. 
  • The panel moderator was Robyn Bew, Penn 1992, the Director and Region Leader for Ernst & Young’s Center for Board Matters.
Advice for Women Leaders: How Board Members Are Chosen

Discussion topics included:

  1. Getting started
  2. Questions Board Candidates Should Ask
  3. Timeline and Networking
  4. Pay to Play for Nonprofits

Getting Started: Advice for Choosing Which Boards to Seek Out

Here are real quotes from the expert panelists:

  • “Nonprofit: First step is to do your homework, show up and be aware of your responsibilities.  Actually read and look at the budget.  Be clear on the expectations of you.”
  • “Minutes are the proof of what happened.  Real responsibility and expectations to serve on the board.  Find out how often the board meets and what committees there are.  Understand the total time commitment.”
  • “Nonprofit: Go through a formal board evaluation process. Did you read the expectations form that you signed? They aren’t all going to be a fit for you.  Stay at it, even if the first nonprofit board isn’t a fit.”
  • “Corporate: I’ve seen an acceleration with more work to be done in between the board meetings.  If something hits the Wall Street Journal, YouTube or Twitter, everybody is on a call.”

Lynn Jerath, President of Citrine Capital,  explains:

“For corporate boards, a board resume is not the same as a job resume. You certainly need experience and expertise, but you’ll need other skills like governance and human resources understanding. Your board bio or resume will need to highlight the skills you’ll bring to the board. For nonprofit boards, don’t start out and think you’ll go right on the board. Show up at some of the things they do, such as a committee or activity that’s part of the board.  Get to know it and get involved.”

Advice for Women Leaders: How Board Members Are Chosen

Questions Board Candidates Should Ask: Things You Need to Know Before Joining a Board

Here are the must-know items before accepting board membership:

  • “Financial transparency. If you ask to see the financials and they say no, it’s a nonstarter.”
  • “Audited financials”
  • “Research other people on the board”
  • “Make sure the board has term limits”
  • “Directors and Officers’ (D&O) insurance is a must”
  • “Board Dynamics: describe to me, what does a healthy discussion look like?”
  • “Written expectations of the Director. Written job description.”
  • “Nonprofit: If a board member is not meeting their commitments of the job description, require them to re-up and meet their commitment or ask them to leave.”

Timeline and Networking: How Do You Find Corporate Boards, and How Long Does it Take?

For paid corporate board positions, a significant challenge is simply becoming networked to them. Panelists advise:

  • “It’s hard, it could take more than 5 years. Start with telling people you are interested.”
  • “Networking with a recruiter who searches for board positions in the industry.”
  • “Private corporate boards may be a great opportunity. Startups are another opportunity.”

Pay to Play for Nonprofits: Board Membership Requires Financial Commitment

With nonprofit boards, members are expected to make contributions.

  • “Nonprofits often look to the board to be a primary funding source.”
  • “Expectation is we need to have 100% board participation.”
  • “Sometimes the company you work for will make the contribution.”

As a takeaway, participants were provided with a Corporate and Nonprofit Boards Factsheet that provided recent trends and statistics, as well as definitions for the role of board of directors and fiduciary duties. If any reader is interested in the handout, please contact me, and I will send a copy:

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