We all experience Wharton’s reputation as a student-driven program daily in the extracurricular activities that we participate in, the conferences that we attend and even the classes that we take. A great embodiment of this spirit is the Nonprofit Board Leadership Program (NBLP), pioneered by students in 2006 and now officially a fellowship offered through the Wharton Leadership Program. The NBLP places passionate MBAs on the boards of nonprofits in the Philadelphia area and provides a unique opportunity for them to learn about the sector, understand first-hand the intricate power dynamics within the boardroom and give back to the local community.
With over 60 participating organizations, the NBLP offers a balanced portfolio of various industries ranging from education to social services to the arts. Historical interest in the program is high, with about 120 applications for 40 fellow positions. If selected, students can preference six nonprofits and are usually able to work with a group that aligns well with their interests. Feedback from the nonprofits is equally positive, as they see the value that Wharton MBAs deliver and often apply for new fellows year after year.
The NBLP stresses five selection criteria for applicants: comfort with ambiguity, humility, passion for a cause, dedication to service and appreciation for diversity. As Dan Kaufman, Associate Director in the Graduate Leadership office, explains, a successful board fellow experience depends heavily upon one’s mindset. Be open to what the nonprofit sector is and don’t approach it as being less efficient than the for-profit world. Instead, understand the distinctive challenges that it faces and learn to work within that environment.
The program is supported by four coordinators, all with backgrounds working in the nonprofit boardroom, who serve as resources for the fellows and host regular meetings and trainings. One of the coordinators, Anna Raven-Hansen (WG ‘15), spent the past four years on the board of a branch of the YWCA serving the National Capital Area. She described it as a great privilege and an amazing experience, and she hopes to help other students gain this fulfilling opportunity. Furthermore, the NBLP fashions an environment where Fellows can meet like-minded peers and form a tight-knit community with great support and feedback.
There exists significant cultural and structural diversity in the nonprofit world, and it’s crucial to recognize that each board is really different. During the information session, several second year Board Fellows spoke about their work and it’s clear that many variables are involved – from the size of the organization to the personalities of the board members to the specific problems that the nonprofits face at any given time. Therefore, it is up to the students to shape their experience and maximize the value. Some Fellows take a very hands-on approach, are super-involved and visit their nonprofits on a weekly basis, while others utilize a more routine schedule. The Fellows have to be proactive and find their own ways to contribute. However, it is important to keep in mind to not think like a consultant, where you find a project and run with it. You are still a board member, so think on a strategic high-level; you do not want to become staff, and you definitely do not want to serve as an intern.
What one can gain from the NBLP is much more than a fancy line on the resume. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make an impact in an area that you are passionate about. Unlike other leadership opportunities at Wharton, you operate outside the bubble in the real world. Anna elaborated on the importance of managing the inter-generational gap and lea
ties. At the end of the day, the decisions you help form have much higher stakes and will significantly impact the community around you.