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Balancing Mission and Management on Nonprofit Boards

Martin Nesbitt, ’89, chairman of the Obama Foundation and co-CEO of the Vistria Group, LLC, reflects on nonprofit board service at the On Board conference.

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Making an impact is central to any nonprofit’s mission, and it’s often what draws people to nonprofit board service. But of equal importance are the management team and strategy behind the organization. During the keynote at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation's On Board 2018 conference in Chicago, Martin Nesbitt, ’89, chairman of the Obama Foundation and co-CEO of the Vistria Group, LLC, shared his experiences serving on a nonprofit board and working to achieve the balance between mission and management.

Nesbitt recalled that his first foray into civic leadership—as a district chair for the Boy Scouts of America—was inspired by a mentoring experience he had in college. He and his roommates became de facto mentors to a boy in the neighborhood who would hang out at their house and do his homework. Those same feelings of empathy helped shape his career and the ways he gives back.

“Helping other people was always very satisfying to me,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not even conscious of the satisfaction that you get out of it until you look back.”

Read takeaways from his conversation on civic leadership with WBEZ’s Steve Edwards:

Build a “shared” perspective.

Rather than trying to manage an organization through the board, Nesbitt advocated for organizations that create a strong partnership between the board and the staff. Setting up a collaborative culture and the right leadership are essential to helping the team to execute. It’s easier to make an impact when the goals are clear and aligned.

Bring together forces of good.

Building a strong network can go a long way in helping an organization to achieve its goals. At the Obama Foundation, Nesbitt hopes to leverage the valuable connections within Chicago’s social impact community to create opportunities for younger generations to be inspired by the accomplishments of their peers. “Figuring out a way to bring [the next generation] together so that they can share experiences is a powerful opportunity,” he said.

Recognize the power of diversity.

Understanding the benefits of creating a diverse workplace is key for nonprofits—and all companies—to thrive. Oftentimes that means working past the challenges to attract a variety of board members or looking outward to a wider group of suppliers. “When people realize how much better their organizations can perform with diversity, they will work harder to achieve that," he said.

Make time for failure.

Ideas are often born from previous failures, and it’s crucial for leaders to allow for experimentation in the boardroom and the workplace. It’s worth the effort to make sure board members and employees feel comfortable sharing all kinds of ideas before deciding on a path forward, says Nesbitt. “You need to create a culture of people that aren’t afraid to fail or share their ideas,” he said.

Keep the big picture in mind.

It’s important that both leadership and employees check their ego at the door. Working toward a larger goal within a nonprofit helps offset the need to cater to a variety of personal interests. Pick a cause you care about, find an organization with a clear mission and committed leadership, and realize that it’s “not all about you.”

Martin Nesbitt gave the keynote address at the On Board conference on nonprofit board service on April 13, 2018, in Chicago. Hosted by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, the fifth annual On Board conference in Chicago convened a crowd of nearly 500 Booth alumni and students and business and nonprofit leaders. Attendees learned key trends in nonprofit board service, gained insight from faculty into how research and other academic tools can be applied in the nonprofit sector, and connected with others looking to make an impact in the social sector.

—By Alina Dizik
May 10, 2018