Ryan McDonald

Manhattan Beach woman guides board members of nonprofits

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Author Elizabeth Bailey at the debut of her book “Step Up.” Photo courtesy Elizabeth Bailey

Author Elizabeth Bailey at the debut of her book “Step Up.” Photo courtesy Elizabeth Bailey

by Ryan McDonald

For many South Bay residents, joining the board of a nonprofit is natural step. The area’s high real estate prices attract people with corporate experience and strong sense of leadership. When combined with a philanthropic outlook, their achievements give them an inside track to a board position.

But what do they do once they get there?

Elizabeth Bailey has some answers. The Manhattan Beach resident recently co-wrote “Step Up!”, a book offering advice on how to get the most out of the experience of participating on the board of a nonprofit.

The book came out of Bailey’s lengthy experience in organizational consulting. Over the past two decades, she has advised nonprofits all over the country, including many in Southern California. In that time, she has seen many people join nonprofit boards, only to sour on the experience after encountering disorder.

“It’s usually really well intentioned people that are getting involved in these organizations, but sometimes the board is not well run,” Bailey said. “Then people go, ‘I don’t want to be on a board, that was a terrible experience.’”

Despite its associated difficulties, Bailey experience has taught her that serving on a nonprofit board can be one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have. It’s a matter of making sure people know what they’re doing, and what they are getting into.

“If the organization is well run, then the expectations are pretty well articulated. People know, okay, I’m expected to do a whole lot more than a regular volunteer,” Bailey said. “I’m not just going to show up at the pancake breakfast, now I’m going to be in charge of the pancake breakfast.”

Among those who have seen Bailey in action is Mary Emmons. Until she retired last month, Emmons served as President and CEO of Children’s Institute, a Los Angeles-based multiservice nonprofit aiding children that have been victims of family and community violence. She worked at Children’s Institute for 35 years, and in that time she has seen some of the struggles that new board members experience.

“As you work with the board as a nonprofit executive, you learn as you go along that you’re going to run into a lot of things,” Emmons said. “I’m not sure anyone is really prepared going in.

I don’t think there are any courses or classes being offered.”

Emmons said that one of Bailey’s strengths was that she came from outside the organization, and offered a fresh perspective. Among the areas she was most helpful with was helping board members define their role. Given the accomplished background of people who frequently land on these boards, this can require a bit of coaxing.

“Most board members are not professionals in the field they are serving,” Emmons said. “They’re leaders in the community, but they rely on experts to give them background.”

Bailey said that it is important for board members to remain aware of the limits of their role. Otherwise, they can get bogged down in minutiae.

“Boards should be involved in big decisions, those decisions that get made at the strategic level,” Bailey said. “But the board should not be managing the rollout of new website.”

Another aspect that Bailey has proven helpful at is one of a board members’ most important but most dreaded activities: raising money. Bailey previously advised the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation on the subject, and made a big difference.

“She was very very helpful at a time when we made some real fundamental changes as to how we were going to go about fundraising,” said Linda McLoughlin Figel, who worked with Bailey as an MBEF board member.

Years later, Figel now has a chance to see Bailey’s work everyday. Figel is a co-founder of {pages: a bookstore}. The shop carries “Step Up!” on its shelves, and Figel has high praise for its packaging and message. She has given copies to several local organizations, including board members of the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professional Association.

As Bailey sees it, the demands placed on nonprofits and boards are unlikely to recede in the future. There is a growing list of societal services, she said, that are provided neither by government nor the private sector. In this climate, it is essential that philanthropy continues to attract people with the ability and desire to serve.

“Nonprofits have become more and more critical to our society. They are filling needs that no one else is filling,” Bailey said. “And there is a correlation between boards doing their job and organizations fulfilling their mission.”

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