(Photo by L Browning Photography via facebook.com/ArtReachPhiladelphia)
In Winter 2007, I found myself restless in my office at One Penn Center, where at the time I was an analyst in a consulting firm. I needed a creative outlet, and since I always valued the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia, I searched online for a volunteer opportunity with a local organization.
Enter Art-Reach, the accessibility-focused arts and culture nonprofit. It was a perfect fit. There were a few volunteer opportunities open, and a volunteer orientation scheduled for those interested in learning more about the organization and how to get involved.
January 2008, I arrived at the offices to attend volunteer orientation and I found myself completely enamored with the vibe that I felt. It felt like home, and the next thing I knew I was signed up to be a special events ambassador. It was really the only opportunity I could pursue that would accommodate my work schedule.
This initial role was an eye-opening experience in that I could use my writing and research skills to assist in telling the organization’s story through one-off articles and blog postings. In my volunteer role, I met many of the then-current board members as well and built a good rapport with some of them.
In Fall 2009, the Great Recession hit the consulting firm where I was employed just as hard as any businesses nationwide, and I was laid off from my job. So, I approached the Art-Reach staff with an idea to host a happy hour fundraiser event to help raise money for the organization. I wasn’t looking to make a huge financial contribution to the organization, but rather needed a project to manage to hone my Recession-filled anxiety.
In my first event, I could raise enough money to help Art-Reach buy a used laptop for its interns that year. A year later, I did the same event again and was introduced to the then-board co-chair. We kept in touch and eventually began talking about my joining the board of directors.
At the time, I was 28 years old and Art-Reach had never had a board member that young, nor did it have an official “give or get” policy — that is, governance-instituted protocol that states someone can either financially contribute the organization’s minimum board contribution or generate funding opportunities to help raise money to achieve that minimum contribution.
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But change happens when you’re persistent and genuine, and that’s exactly how I became the youngest board member in the organization’s history. I set up a give or get policy for myself, and my first term on the board was a great experience, as I learned more about board governance, nonprofit management and nonprofit finance reporting.
Both the Recession and this first term overlapped with my graduate studies at the Fels Institute of Government, and as I progressed in my career after school, my thinking evolved. I was more interested than ever before in both civic and community engagement, and I was passionate about the work Art-Reach was doing, including the immense organizational potential I witnessed from my board seat.
"Change happens when you’re persistent and genuine, and that’s exactly how I became the youngest board member in the organization’s history."
In July 2014, I was asked to consider joining the executive committee of the organization — and would be the only person of color at an executive level. I was appointed shortly after, and simultaneously became the only person of color on the board of directors.
Currently, I am the vice chair of the board and am still committed to the purpose, passion and growth of an organization that took me in years before as a volunteer and accepted my challenging the then-governance status quo.
Recently with the support of Impact100 Philadelphia, Art-Reach produced a documentary film, “I Am.” The film tracks the budding relationship between students of the St. Katherine’s Day School and the Pennsylvania Ballet, and how the arts empowers, encourages and accepts us all as we are no matter what we look like and how we learn.
We all matter. I truly strongly believe that art is a universal equalizer, and organizations like Art-Reach send that message region-wide every day.
My hope is that more young professionals and students consider engaging local organizations in similar manners. There’s a place for all of us in philanthropy and restricted financial means need not be a deterrent. For me, starting as a volunteer was just the beginning, and my journey has evolved immensely and consistently.
How do you get started and get involved? Here’s what I recommend:
- Identify your passion(s) — What issue most moves you?
- Research the nonprofit and philanthropy landscape — To find the right organizational fit.
- Once you’ve engaged, learn more about how you can get involved — That can be at any level; don’t rush into any “formal” role just to achieve a title or status. Your journey into volunteering is yours. Take your time, find your fit and focus on progress rather than a position.
- Avoid over-extending yourself financially — And be honest with the organization’s leadership about your giving capacity upfront.
- Stay your course and be patient with yourself — Being a part of this region’s local philanthropy community is both exciting and rewarding, and the best part of the experience is enjoying your personal development throughout the process.
Remember: Board service is a win-win scenario, really, as both you of this city will be better for it.-30-
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