Washington County has a vibrant history of charitable nonprofit and service organizations that promote underserved residents and important civic events. From the disabled and mentally ill to our libraries, the Whiskey Rebellion Festival and the Washington Symphony, the array of activities supported in the community is impressive.
Nonprofit and service organizations play a vital role in building a healthier, well-rounded Washington County. The leadership of each entity is often the loudest voice to champion the people and causes they serve. However, in this decade of growing needs and shrinking governmental resources, these organizations are being asked to do more with less. The one area where our citizens can step up, at little financial cost, is in providing human resources as board members and volunteers.
The two obvious questions are: 1) what expertise and background are organizations seeking and 2) how does an interested party get involved? In addressing the first question on needs, former county commissioner Bracken Burns had some wise and relevant thoughts. Since retiring as commissioner, he has continued to serve on over 25 boards, commissions and organizations. While his input may be stretched to the limit, he has been able to perform the valuable function of cross-pollinating ideas among the varied interests he serves. Over the years, Mr. Burns has concluded that diversity in four areas is the key to maintaining a strong nonprofit or service organization.
Racial Diversity. All organizations must be sensitive to recruiting minorities to serve on their boards and as volunteers to foster social cohesion and stronger social support networks. This is particularly important where the community being served includes minorities. I am reminded of a draft web page developed for a mental health nonprofit on which I have served. Our sole African American member pointed out that no people of color were depicted on the masthead. Her input on this and other sensitive matters was invaluable to the social integration of our mission and purpose.
Age Diversity. Recruiting young adults to serve is difficult. Often both eligible spouses have full-time employment with children. However, seeking out interested young adults is crucial to the survival of our organizations that tend to be “top heavy” with much older members.
Age diversity can bring a richness and new insight to a discussion of critical issues. Bracken would not hesitate to add a college student (or younger) to a board where the participant had a vested personal interest in the business of the organization. Enthusiasm and a fresh perspective make up for the lack of wisdom that comes from experience. Moreover, no single age group has all the answers.
Skill Diversity. An important consideration for both recruiting organizations and individuals seeking a place to serve is the skills brought to the board meeting or volunteer effort. It is important for the professional skills of the charitable board members to be well rounded. Legal, finance, accounting and business backgrounds are four basic needs for most supervising boards. No less important are experience in fundraising, communications and marketing, performance management, technology and strategic planning.
Geographical Diversity. The fourth and final diversity factor was not as obvious to me as the others were until Mr. Burns explained. He has found over the years that a board of directors made up of only East Washington members, when the organization services a much larger area, is a mistake. Washington County has city, suburban and rural communities within its borders. In addition, the Mon Valley has its own distinct personality. He strongly believes that when an organization services the entire county, it needs representation from all of these areas.
We have explored the types of individuals who are essential to perpetuate the health of Washington County charitable organizations. The question now becomes how to match up the requirements of individual charitable nonprofits with those who may be interested in becoming involved. For this dilemma, I turned to the one person who has her hand on the pulse of charitable giving in Washington County, Betsie Trew.
Betsie is the president and CEO of the Washington County Community Foundation (WCCF). Under her leadership assets have grown to more than $39 million, with over $15 million in grants and scholarships awarded. Like Burns, she is in a position to understand both the needs of the county’s charitable nonprofits and the available talent pool.
Unfortunately, there is no single database to match up nonprofits with potential board members or volunteers. There is, however, a comprehensive alphabetical list of all organizations that participate in the WCCF Day of Giving on its website. Anyone interested in service work can review the list or a subset by category and click on an entry for contact information. (Google: WCCF Charity Search.)
Another resource for future board members and volunteers is the training program sponsored by Leadership Washington County (LWC@palwc.org). LWC has been identifying and preparing future leaders through its program since 1998. After completion of the program, LWC provides participants with opportunities for board membership to stay actively involved in the community.
Throughout the past pandemic year, charitable nonprofit boards have been meeting virtually to keep the doors open and to prepare for the new normal. Any organization would be grateful to be contacted by new recruits ready to lend a hand for the greater good.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.