Thursday, April 28, 2022

Law School Alumni Reflect on Nonprofit Board Service

Yale Law alumni shared their experiences serving on nonprofit boards at an April 11 panel discussion co-hosted by the Ludwig Program in Public Service Leadership and the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy.

Panelists Ravi Gupta ’09, Vidya Satchit ’14, and Megan Wachspress ’15 reflected on how they first became board members, the time commitment and responsibilities of serving, and the challenges and rewards inherent in working on nonprofit boards. 

Margie Adler, Executive Director of the Ludwig Program, moderated the panel and hoped the event would familiarize Law School students with the fundamentals of board service. 

“Serving on a nonprofit board can be an educational and fulfilling way to become engaged with an organization whose mission aligns with your values,” said Adler. “For many, board membership can be a steppingstone to deeper involvement with a nonprofit organization.

The panelists emphasized that finding the right fit is essential to serving on an organization’s board. Speakers also stressed that students should have a clear understanding of the duties and expectations of a board member. 

“It’s very important to have clear expectations about who does what and who owns the right to make decisions,” said Satchit, who serves as the Board Chair for Sakhi for South Asian Women, an anti-domestic violence organization based in New York.

Satchit added that “having a relationship where there’s trust and mutual alignment about what needs to be done,” is also important.

The time commitment necessary to serve on a board can vary based on the board role, committee involvement, and the size of the organization, but panelists said nonprofit board members should expect to serve a minimum of a few hours per week.

“There are often opportunities to take on leadership roles within nonprofit boards, even for relatively new board members,” Adler said.

Boards often select members based on a skill set the organization needs, the panelists said, and gave examples of when their law degrees were helpful in their board service. 

“While legal knowledge or experience is not a requirement for board service, it can be helpful,” Adler said.

Wachspress, who said she has always been good with numbers, serves as a Treasurer of the board of the Homeless Action Center, which provides free public benefits advocacy to homeless and disabled residents in Alameda County in Northern California. She also said her background in labor law was helpful when employees at the nonprofit organization unionized and she searched for legal referrals to pass on to management.

“It gave me an opportunity to put my legal skills and my legal practice to work, but in an opposite perspective than when I was a practicing attorney,” Wachspress said.

Board service can be challenging at times, the panelists said, and tension can mount if board member roles and expectations are not clear, board training does not occur, or it is not clear how the board interacts with the nonprofit’s leadership.

“It can get a bit tense. The more you can outline expectations on the front end and continually train and remind each other of those expectations and confirm what the board’s role is versus the staff, the better,” said Gupta, a board member and co-founder of Arena, which works to support the next generation of political candidates and campaign staff.

Panelists shared the skills that they developed as a result of their board service. Satchit said she has become a better manager and mentor. Gupta said he asks more probing questions, and Wachspress said learning what her boundaries are and being a good listener are two of the skills that she has developed during her board service.

The event concluded with panelists giving advice to students who want to join a nonprofit board.

“I would ask the person who’s recruiting you to think through the specific scenarios outside of board meetings to understand how critical decisions are made. Then imagine how those moments feel and look like and ask yourself if you want to be in the middle of those critical decisions,” Gupta said.

“Approach the board appointment with humility especially as a young board member on a long-standing organization,” said Wachspress.

“Identify those organizations whose work, whose mission really speaks to you and be discerning and judicious in your time commitment and don’t spread yourself too thin,” said Satchit.

The Carol and Gene Ludwig Program in Public Sector Leadership, a part of The Tsai Leadership Program at Yale Law School, provides focused educational and professional development to Yale Law School students who aspire to nontraditional careers and leadership roles in the public sector.

The Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School is the first of its kind to focus on the intersection of law and the governance, practice, and business of health care. The Center brings together leading experts and practitioners from the public and private sectors to address cutting-edge questions of health law and policy, and to train the next generation of top health lawyers, industry leaders, policymakers, and academics.