Berkeley Board Fellows program: training students to dive deep on boards

Joleen Ruffin

The Berkeley Community Fund’s Joleen Ruffin chats with board fellows Ryan King and Justin Zhang, both MBA 19s.

As a rising executive at education nonprofit 114th Partnership, Laura Hassner, EMBA 18, found a perfect opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how boards work as a Berkeley Board Fellow.

“This program is a natural fit, as it provides a professional opportunity to support a board and a way to become a better board member myself,” said Hassner, who is working with the board of 10,000 Degrees, which helps students from low-income backgrounds to complete higher education. “I’ve already been able to apply my classroom learning in real time and I’m able to do it to help underrepresented kids succeed in college.”

Hassner, who is a president of her EMBA class, is one of 70 Berkeley graduate students who will serve on nonprofit boards of directors this fall as part of the program, which is operated by the Haas School’s Center for Social Sector Leadership. Founded in 2003, the program has placed a total of 875 fellows on nonprofit boards.

Laura Haasner
Laura Hassner, who is working with the board of 10,000 Degrees. All photos: Bruce Cook.

The fellows—which this year include 30 students from the full-time MBA program, six from the evening & weekend program, and five students from the executive MBA program—will volunteer on the boards of 35 Bay Area nonprofits.

Students were introduced to their boards at an Oct. 11 event, attended by Dean Rich Lyons. Organizations participating this year include The Bread Project, Freight & Salvage, Destiny Arts Center, Meals on Wheels of Alameda County, The Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, the East Bay College Fund, the Alameda Point Collaborative, Mission Neighborhood Centers, and Goodwill.

“We’re so excited to launch our 2017 group of fellows into the nonprofit community,” said Ben Mangan, executive director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership. “Collectively, our fellows have had such a positive impact on Bay Area boards through their work—and our nonprofit partners, in turn, have provided an invaluable educational resource to our students.”

Projects that create change

Board fellows receive training at Haas, attend board meetings, and spend about eight hours per month completing a project requested by the boards. This year, Ryan King and Justin Zhang, both MBA 19s, (in top photo with Joleen Ruffin) have been asked by the Berkeley Community Fund‘s (BCF) board to work on a project to evaluate the best practices of career development support services for first-generation college students at organizations similar to BCF’s—and to recommend a framework to establish a similar program.

“Justin and Ryan will find out about the resources available that we can tap into or identify what we can develop ourselves,” said Joleen Ruffin, executive director of the Berkeley Community Fund, which provides support and college scholarships to Berkeley public high school graduates.

This project builds on the 2016 student project that explored the effectiveness of relationships between community mentors and BCF’s scholars. These relationships often weakened over the course of four years, Ruffin said, and the board fellows, through interviews and working with the board, found out why—and identified ways to help the mentors feel more useful to the students and the students to feel more supported.  “We started to implement solutions right away which was fantastic,” Ruffin said.

Learning from their “fellow fellows”

Berkeley Board Fellows in Chou Hall
Berkeley Board Fellows gathered in Chou Hall.

For many nonprofits and students, the program offers the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of board governance and build relationships that continue after the projects are done. It also opens the door for fellows, to serve on boards in the future.

“Every year most fellows tell us they are likely to join a nonprofit board within five years,” said Cathy Garza, program director with the Center for Social Sector Leadership. “It’s my goal and hope that the program continues to seed the world with knowledgeable board members who will make a measurable difference in the world through board service.”

Oseyi Ikuenobe, MBA 15 and a product manager at Square, is a former fellow who is now a full Berkeley Community Fund board member. Tyler Swain, MBA/MPH 18, also a former fellow, serves on the board of the Huckleberry Youth Programs.

One change to the program this year is the hiring of a new staff program fellow, whose role is to build community and provide mentoring to the group of fellows.

“We received feedback that the students wanted to learn more from their fellow fellows,” said Kate Chadwick, a program manager in the Center for Social Sector Leadership. “They wanted to know more about the projects that other students were working on and how their boards worked, because every nonprofit board experience is different.”

Mary Ellen Harty, MBA 18, will serve in that role. Harty completed the program last year and returned because she wanted to help improve it. “I felt there was opportunity for the fellows to connect more outside of the kick-off and finale session, and leverage each other’s strengths and experiences,” she said. Harty will host office hours and brown bag lunches, and has created a Slack channel and Facebook group for the fellows.