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Board Fellows Programs Give M.B.A.'s Taste of Nonprofits

Business students join nonprofit boards of directors to hone skills and contribute their expertise.

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Growing up in the heart of Newark, N.J., Landy Estrada-Reyes depended on nonprofit organizations in the community to keep him focused on a path toward college. He played basketball at his neighborhood YMCA and enrolled in a summer program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology through Upward Bound.

When he arrived at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in 2010, Estrada-Reyes decided he wanted to serve the community by volunteering with a nonprofit organization. Through Cornell's Johnson Board Fellowship Program, he joined the board of directors of the Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, N.Y., and has spent the past year developing a comparative analysis of comparably sized community theaters.

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"My main objective was to give back to a nonprofit organization that provides a great service, just like I benefited from an organization while growing up in Newark," says Estrada-Reyes, who will work at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after graduating this May.

In the past decade, a growing number of M.B.A. students have joined nonprofit boards of directors as graduate business schools across the country have launched board fellows programs. While the programs provide students a chance to hone their leadership and business skills, they also allow nonprofits to gain the insight of talented students who want to contribute their management expertise.

The first graduate business school to create a board fellows program was Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. Developed by three M.B.A. students in 1997, the program now has 58 students serving on nonprofit boards this year.

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"Business school can be a very insular experience," says Allen C. Thayer, assistant director of Stanford's Public Management Program. "There aren't many opportunities to get out there and serve the community, and this is one of those celebrated programs that allow students to do that."

After Stanford started its program, the idea caught on quickly among business schools that wanted to provide an outlet for their students to become involved in community service. The board fellows programs have also helped break down the stereotype that M.B.A. students are more concerned about the for-profit, rather than the nonprofit, world, says C. Michael Stepanek, director of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.

"It's an honest recognition of the changing face of M.B.A. students," Stepanek says. "We have a generation of students who are very socially conscious. Not all M.B.A.'s are necessarily lawyers or come from business backgrounds. They may have run a nonprofit theater company. They often have a personal interest in the idea of board service."

[Read how more M.B.A. programs require students to study ethics.]

Directors of nonprofit organizations involved in the programs say that the addition of M.B.A. students on their boards allows their agencies to undertake projects they might not have been able to tackle with limited resources. The M.B.A. students also bring a fresh perspective and a level of enthusiasm that often rejuvenates their boards, says James Brown, president of the United Way of Tompkins County (N.Y.), which has worked with the board fellowship program at Cornell since its inception in 2008.

"They just bring a sense of positive energy," Brown says. "They also bring a happiness quotient to our organization. When they're there, the room changes a bit. They elevate everybody's sense of doing the work."

Besides the board fellows programs, some business schools such as Stanford and University of North Carolina offer a nonprofit management certificate that M.B.A.'s can earn in addition to their chosen concentration. Yet the focus of the business school curriculum is still the traditional finance and management courses.

"We're not emphasizing nonprofit careers," Stepanek says. "What we do emphasize is nonprofit board service."