Is it your hope to make a positive difference in the world, get more involved, or meet more people who care about the issues that motivate you? Then perhaps there is no better way to do all that than by joining a board of a nonprofit whose mission inspires you.
To learn more about how to do that, and get the most out of the experience, we sat down with E. John Rosenwald, Jr., a Vice Chairman at J.P. Morgan. It is not an exaggeration to say that Rosenwald, known as “Rosie” to his fans and friends, is a legend in this field. Now at age 89, he has given a lifetime of service to New York’s most high-profile charitable institutions, including New York University, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Central Park Conservancy, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
Back in 2000, The New York Times profiled Rosenwald as a “premiere” philanthropist of his generation and noted that capital campaigns run by him had raised over $3 billion, already putting him in a class by himself.
Unsurprisingly, Rosenwald is an unabashed champion for the work. His philosophy: “Philanthropy is the rent we pay for the space we occupy.”
He adds emphatically, however, that everything given in board service comes back many times over, in other ways. “You develop relationships that are 24 carat,” he says. “You become a colleague. You’re not a salesman trying to land a piece of business. Over my lifetime, I have gotten back so much more than I have given. It’s hard to describe.”
We asked Rosenwald for tips not only on how to get started, but also on what to expect once on a board. Here’s his advice:
In the most ideal situation, you would select a charity whose work you really care about. “The passion is important,” says Rosenwald, “so that when it’s the end of the day and you think you are going home, and instead find you have a late afternoon board meeting, you don’t think, oh no.”
There are natural connections to organizations, according to Rosenwald, even if you can’t think of a passion immediately. Start with your alma mater, or those of your children. Examine the institution’s audited financials to learn what percentage of total expenses are covered by tuitions. It’s usually a small percentage, with the balance covered by the philanthropy of graduates who preceded you. Rosenwald would argue that you have a similar obligation to those who follow you. Or consider a hospital that might have treated you or a family member with particular proficiency and dignity.
Rules of Engagement
The next step is to determine exactly what the board will expect from you in terms of time commitment and financial largesse. “Most charitable boards today have what we in the world of philanthropy call a ‘give or get’ rule,” he explains. That is, a board member commits to either giving or raising a certain amount every year for the annual drive, and in the event of a capital campaign, an appreciably larger gift.
“It’s better to know at the beginning,” he says, “rather than to go on to join the board and find out they’re expecting you to give $100,000 a year and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s above my pay scale, I wish you had told me that before I joined the board. I quit.’ That's awkward.”
Also, be prepared for a fairly significant time commitment. Most boards meet at least four times a year for two hours. Additionally, members sit on committees that meet separately for another two hours a quarter. So expect, at the very least, four hours of meetings four times a year.
Joining a Board
There are many ways to be accepted to a board, but the most direct is through people you know who already are serving. Let them know you’re interested. If you don’t know board members at the institution that inspires you, consider volunteering, giving to, and attending annual charity events, and attempt to meet the directors. If that fails, or you don’t have the patience, Rosenwald says you can always call the CEO of the charity and explain your interest and qualifications.
Remember that while most boards want big contributors, they also require expertise in certain areas, such as accounting and real estate. These are skills that could be offered in lieu of larger contributions. When Rosenwald was at the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, the board always wanted a number of scientists to serve. So although Rosenwald insisted on asking every board member for a “stretch gift,” it was understood that a scientist’s “stretch gift” would be considerably lower than a financier’s.
Once the board has been joined, Rosenwald has assembled 10 rules for landing the big ask. Those might not be appropriate for new board members, but he does have one last bit of wise counsel for those looking to make a big splash: “Don’t ask anyone to do anything you haven’t done yourself.”
John Rosenwald’s 10 Rules for Making the Ask
- Don’t ask anyone to do anything you haven’t done yourself.
- Never send a thousand-dollar giver to make a million-dollar ask.
- Don’t give till it hurts; give till it feels good.
- Think twice before naming a trustee who can’t make a substantial contribution.
- Never set a campaign goal you can’t reach.
- Never begin a campaign with less than one-third of the total already raised.
- Nobody is insulted by being asked for too much.
- Sell the excellence of the institution—people want to be associated with winners.
- Be patient—courting major donors is like catching big fish on a light tackle: pull too hard and the line breaks.
- The sale begins when the customer says no.
To learn more about joining and serving on a nonprofit board, please speak with your J.P. Morgan advisor.