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How are nonprofits and foundations scaling innovative solutions in Chicago? How can you succeed as part of a nonprofit board? What are the best strategies to approach diversity and inclusion? And why should you build successful partnerships across sectors?

Those were just some of the key ideas addressed during the On Board Chicago conference hosted by the Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.

Business and nonprofit leaders committed to social impact spent the day attending sessions and workshops to explore and strengthen their ability to address complex social issues. Speakers covered topics including how to find a meaningful board service experience, what to know about boosting board engagement, the role of boards in capacity building, the importance of collaboration across sectors, and social sector research in Chicago.

“Nonprofits play an important role in creating a more just and equitable society,” Caroline Grossman, ’03, executive director of the Rustandy Center and adjunct associate professor of strategy at Chicago Booth, told the audience.

This year, in-person attendees explored how the nonprofit sector could strengthen social change in Chicago. Get a sampling of the important conversations through key takeaways from two of the sessions:

Innovation in the Social Sector: How Nonprofits and Foundations Tackle Complex Social Challenges

Rethink the word ‘innovation’ and how it aligns with nonprofits.

Especially in the nonprofit world, the need for innovation can feel overwhelming. Rather than entirely reinventing existing processes, it’s important to understand that innovation can happen in smaller increments too. “Try things and experiment … we sometimes need to take small baby steps that lead us to a better place,” said panelist Dorri McWhorter, president and CEO of YMCA Metropolitan Chicago, at the breakout session, which was moderated by Booth’s deputy dean for MBA programs, Starr Marcello.

Take shared risks and collaborate to spark change.

Organizations of all sizes can benefit from collaborating and taking the kind of collective risks that are necessary to spark new ideas within the field, said Shelley Davis, president and CEO of the Coleman Foundation, a foundation with investments in the Chicago metro area. That means exploring partnerships and joining together on common goals. “Since the pandemic, we’ve had more collaboration and more collective giving than ever before,” she said. “It’s important to take these shared risks and have this shared understanding.”

Create impact through building trust among board members.

Electing nonprofit board members who inspire change is critical to improving the nonprofits they serve. But understanding how to benefit from these so-called changemakers as part of a nonprofit board takes time. Kyle Johnson, ’19, cofounder and chief operating officer of the Business Services Collective, a nonprofit working with entrepreneurs in the construction trades, said it’s important to start by building solid relationships between board members and nonprofit leaders. “It’s about establishing an environment of trust,” he said.

Boost Board Engagement: The Role of Accountability in Strengthening Board Performance

Acknowledge all the reasons people join nonprofit boards—it’s not just altruism.

People often join boards to network, meet their own career ambitions, or pursue their own interests. For those in the nonprofit space, it’s especially important to verbalize these different reasons, Christina Hachikian, AB ’02, MBA ’07, clinical associate professor of strategic management, told the audience. For most people, doing so can ease the anxieties related to being an effective board member. “People with more motivations do more but are more likely to be unsatisfied with their experience,” said Hachikian, who moderated the breakout session.

To combat these hurdles, Hachikian suggested being upfront about those motivations and helping board members meet their specific goals as part of their work on behalf of the organization. “Ask board members to set individual responsibilities and goals, and then hold them accountable,” she said. “Demonstrate that participation is monitored.”

Treat board service as a long-term career investment.

Like many other large cities, Chicago has a long history of civic board service. In the corporate world, that means many top executives make time to serve others as they move to the top, Adela Cepeda, ’84, corporate director at BMO Harris Bank, told the audience during a breakout session. “To advance, you have to be seen as a civic leader,” Cepeda said. “You have to view it as an investment in your career.”

Become intentional about forming—and joining—committees.

As the size of nonprofit boards grows, it’s important to focus on committees—smaller groups of board members working together more closely to solve problems, said Blake-Anthony Johnson, chief executive officer of the Chicago Sinfonietta, a professional orchestra dedicated to promoting diversity. Today, Johnson is making sure the committees can work together more effectively to truly create an impact. “It’s about putting the right people together in the room,” he said.

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