How Does Corporate and Nonprofit Board Work Inform the Other?

Drexel University’s Gupta Governance Institute and Grant Thornton’s biweekly Nonprofit Directors Dialogue Miniseries features nonprofit leaders and board members as they share insights and strategies for turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s successes.

How has your work in the corporate sector informed your work in the nonprofit sector and vice versa?

One of the things I love about the nonprofit world is that the sense of mission is so important. I’ve been privileged to be on the Philadelphia Zoo board since 2006, so coming up on 15 years, and our sense of mission is palpable. Everyone who comes into the Zoo just loves being there and loves doing what we do for the animals and for our guests to engage with the animals.

Actually, in many companies that I’ve become involved in post-Vanguard, that’s one of the first questions. I ask, “What’s your ‘why’? Why do you exist?” I want to hear how missionary, if you will, the company is and how deeply held importance of mission is to the employees of that organization. It tells you a lot about the company.

In terms of bringing things from the private sector to the nonprofit sector, I think we’ve done a couple of things. For one, we brought in frameworks that had proved to be pretty successful in the corporate world. A number of my colleagues at the Philly Zoo were right in the middle of the great financial crisis of 2008/2009. We have a lot of battle scars and a lot of lessons learned that we took and actually tried to create the appropriate framework for the rest of the board and for the management team to navigate all of the uncertainty. McKinsey, Boston Consulting, Bain, and the other big consultants had helped create those frameworks. Part of the corporate experience was that we were able to take the best of those, meld them together, and create something that was very specific for the Zoo.

I also think that one of the things that some private sector companies and private sector boards, in particular, do really well is use task forces to study particular problems. So, if you’re going to enter a new market as a for-profit company, for example, you may not have a permanent board committee that is dealing with that. You might take a couple of board members who have specific experience in the new markets that you want to enter, and you might ask them to be part of a small task force and work very hands-on with management. We actually have used that task force concept at the Zoo and a couple of the other nonprofits that I’m involved in to navigate some of the trickier issues where getting the whole board together on a regular basis just wasn’t practical. It’s not a substitute for the whole board, but it’s a small group tasked with helping management do some of the day-to-day stuff that they just don’t have the capacity to handle because of the crisis.